EXTRAORDINARY true stories sometimes make rather unremarkable films.
The Zookeeper's Wife is a good example.
Set in Poland in 1939, this handsome period drama is inspired by real-life couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh).
Together, they run the Warsaw Zoo, which until German occupation, is a thriving institution.
Jan has the academic qualifications required to run the show, but Antonina is the natural animal whisperer, quieting a distressed elephant to save her unborn calf, cuddling the lion cubs, nuzzling up to a skunk in bed.
Director Niki Caro, presumably selected for this job on the basis of her 2002 breakout film Whale Rider, devotes a generous amount of screen time to the impressive animal cast.
It's a wise move. They are extremely photogenic.
And Chastain's empathy for the creatures feels entirely genuine. It's easy to believe her character when she tells a traumatised child that she prefers animals to humans.
The most disturbing scene in the film is the bombing of the zoo by Hitler's army - when the dust settles, it's clear that many of the larger animals have been dismembered. Others, badly injured, must be put down.
Perhaps even more disquieting is an order from Hitler's zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), to slaughter the surviving critters (with the exception of a few rare specimens that he ships back home).
Heck already has a complicated relationship with the Zabinskis and their animals. Now that Poland is under German occupation, things are bound to get a whole lot trickier.
Especially when Jan comes up with an elaborate plan to hide as many Jews as he can in the zoo's empty basement, ferrying them out to safety as soon as he can.
The Zabinskis efforts are every bit as awe-inspiring as those of Schindler and his list.
But despite a committed performance from the always-watchable Chastain, this version of the Zabinski's story feels more like an exotic museum piece than the dangerous game of cat and mouse it should be.
Caro pays such lavish attention to the romantic backdrop, and Antonina's special bond with her supersized menagerie, the human drama isn't as foregrounded as it should be.
The Zookeeper's Wife opens tomorrow.
The Zookeeper's Wife
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl.
Director: Niki Caro
Verdict: 3 stars
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