MOVIE BUFF-ET: Bland “The Zookeeper’s Wife” lacks emotional punch

Focus Features

Jessica Chastain is a movie star, and like all movie stars, the camera loves her, even when it’s recording her in a lackluster movie.

Unfortunately, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is one of those films that doesn’t do its source material justice. The movie is based on Diane Ackerman’s non-fiction account of how Jan and Antonina Zabinski saved thousands of Polish Jews during World War II by hiding them in the Warsaw Zoo and then sneaking them to safety.

That’s about as strong of source material as one can find. Steven Spielberg crafted a hauntingly compelling film in “Schindler’s List” out of a similar story, but Angela Workman’s script falls short of capturing the tension, dire situation, and possible consequences facing the Zabinski’s and their refugees had their actions been discovered.

New In Local Theaters

  • “Going In Style” (PG-13) 1h hr. 36 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback. Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • “Smurfs: The Lost Village” (PG) 1 hr. 30 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
    » Watch trailer
  • “The Case For Christ” (PG) 1 hr. 52 min.
    (Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer

Director Niki Caro and cinematographer Andrij Parekh captured a beautiful-looking movie, but one that’s merely shadow boxing rather than throwing and landing actual punches.

The story of what the Zabinski’s risked against such odds is one that a viewer should feel in the gut, the heart and the mind, but for whatever reasons the movie plays distant and cool despite some truly gorgeous shots. The film is a tepid missed opportunity, which explains why it opened in April instead of slot reserved for Oscar contenders.

The opening scenes of the movie are the best, first depicting Antonina (Chastain) coming to the rescue of a newborn elephant calf that is not breathing as the agitated parents looking on. Atonina loves and has away with the creatures that populate the zoo.

The next sequence depicts the ravages of the Nazi Blitzkrieg on the zoo as well as the rest of Warsaw. It’s truly surreal to see wild animals prowling amongst the rubble, as citizens are shocked from the onslaught of war.

With the animals dispersed, the film loses much of its resonance and originality. From that point on, the film takes a predictable route and fails to evoke the emotion of a truly heart-wrenching episode of history.

Chastain’s performance is good, although, she distractingly struggles with a Polish accent. A less affected performances might have meant more. German actor Daniel Bruhl offers the best performance of the movie as Hitler’s zoologist Lutz Heck, but for some reason he delivers his lines with a British accent.

Had the film been stronger, I might not have noticed or cared about the accents, but they became more bothersome as the film went along.

In a world without “Schindler’s List,” perhaps “The Zookeeper’s Wife” could have found some traction. However, it’s never positive when the movie you’re watching keeps reminding you of a much better film.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 4 min.
Grade: C

Classic Corner

“Love in the Afternoon”

If “Love in the Afternoon” weren’t a fantasy but a real-life situation, its subject matter might be considered pretty creepy. After all, it is the tale of a wealthy fifty-something man relentlessly chasing after an of-age yet still very young woman.

However, the 1957 romantic comedy features the dreamy type of plot Hollywood and many film fans doted on for decades.

As common as the trope may be, stars like Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, and Maurice Chevalier illuminate the material, and the deft direction of Billy Wilder elevates it.

Cooper plays Frank Flannagan, an American playboy whose reputation for philandering precedes him. Wilder, who wrote the script along with I.A.L. Diamond, envisioned Cary Grant in the role, but settled for Cooper when Grant turned it down.

While Grant’s stylish charm fit the role better, Cooper makes his “aw shucks” personae work for him in the love-them-and-leave them part.

As Ariane Chavasse, Hepburn becomes involved through her father Claude (Chevalier), a private detective who knows all to well about Flannagan’s shenanigans with women. Flannagan makes no distinction between married or single women he targets as his prey.

One of Claude’s clients “Monsieur X” (John McGiver) exclaims that he is going to shoot Flannagan that afternoon when his wife meets Flannagan for their afternoon tryst.

Ariane overhears the conversation and plans to warn Flannagan and “Monsieur X’s” wife of the impending gunplay.

Upon meeting each other, Flannagan and Ariane become smitten. Ariane plays the part of femme fatal and brags in a manner that suggests she’s nearly as experienced and voracious as Flannagan is.

The cat-and-mouse play between the two and then the eventual involvement of Claude is charming and quite funny, as Hepburn’s playful lies only maker her more perplexing and attractive to Cooper.

A standout scene finds Ariane lying beneath a table with Flannagan sidling up next to her.

The alluring Hepburn coyly notes in a singsong cadence with her adorable accent, “I’m too thin, and my ears stick out. My teeth are crooked, and my neck is much too long.”

Cooper wolfishly responds, “Maybe so, but I love how it all hangs together,” before leaning in for a kiss.

Like in all romantic comedies, the relationship reaches a conflict, but to find out how it ends, you’ll just have to watch the film.