Jessica Chastain has long harboured an inner Meryl Streep: you can see that defiance, mixed in with a glossy, almost remote delicateness, in movies ranging from ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ to her coiled turn in ‘A Most Violent Year’ (a drama that surely would have starred Streep herself had it been made in 1981 and not just set that year). ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ is the moment when Chastain’s Streep gets the better of her. She goes full ‘Sophie’s Choice’ as the Polish keeper of a Warsaw zoo during WWII. Her heavily accented life consists of tendink to the animals, talkink elephants through their painful pregnancies and hopink Hitler’s war machine stays far away from her heppy femily.
As developed from Diane Ackerman’s best-selling 2007 non-fiction book, Niki Caro’s film (written by Angela Workman) has been shaped as a showcase for its star. As a result, Chastain’s own natural humility gets lost on the way. She’s better when playing against her character’s often absent husband (Johan Heldenbergh) or, more electrically, the handsome and well-mannered Nazi officer (Daniel Brühl) who comes to commandeer her domain and take a fancy to its custodian.
As Holocaust-era movies go (Chastain’s maternal saint begins to secretly hide Jews in her cellar), this one is neither too pretty nor too ugly – which might doom it to a particularly banal shade of detachment. Chastain is relaxed with some actual lion cubs, and there’s a bunny that should win an Oscar. But when the film pivots to the scared human beings down below, you get a hint of the weirder, tougher drama it might have been.