Holocaust film misses tone in what should be a powerful tale

There's a scene in “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse” — maybe the greatest making-of documentary of all time — that's stuck with me over the years.

Francis Ford Coppola's wife, Eleanor, is recording a conversation with her husband as he discusses his doubts during the making of his Vietnam epic, “Apocalypse Now.” “My greatest fear is to make a really … embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject,” says Coppola. “And I am doing it.”

The true story that “The Zookeeper's Wife” is based on certainly makes it an important subject, and while it's a stretch to call it embarrassing or pompous, it does not live up to that importance.

We are introduced to Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) in an almost whimsical scene as she rides her bicycle through the Warsaw Zoo, which she runs with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). She rides through the zoo greeting the animals. She stands at the gate greeting the guests. Life is beautiful.

But this is Poland in the late 1930s. At a dinner party, Antonina meets Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), the director of the zoo in Berlin. As the topic of Hitler's military plans comes up, Heck dismisses it with, “I'm a zoologist, not a politician.”

Soon Germany mounts its invasion of Poland, and the bombs begin to fall on the zoo. While her immediate heartbreak is for the animals they love, Antonina and Jan soon turn to a more urgent goal. They develop an elaborate plan to use the zoo to smuggle Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto, right under the nose of the German occupation.

Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) certainly wrings some powerful onscreen moments from the specter of the Holocaust. The issues with “Zookeeper's Wife” are in connecting those moments to a powerful narrative. It's an amazing story, but the telling of it is lacking.

Caro's lighter opening notes clash with the seriousness of events, and since the Nazi atrocities have been depicted in shocking detail on film before, the tendency to pull punches on them feels like an odd choice, as do frequent cutaways that are either artistic choices or related to budget constraints.

Chastain embraces the lead in an anchoring performance, and Brühl gives a sinister performance that hearkens to his famous turn as a Nazi officer in “Inglourious Basterds,” but overall “Zookeeper” doesn't live up to its subject matter.