Film reviews round-up: The Zookeeper's Wife, Rules Don't Apply, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

Jessica Chastain stars as a heroic figure of wartime Poland, Warren Beatty takes on the enigmatic Howard Hughes, and a boxing film with a twist

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The Independent Culture

The Zookeeper’s Wife (12A)

★★☆☆☆

Niki Caro, 127 mins, starring: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Timothy Radford, Efrat Dor

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a Holocaust drama with a hint of Gerald Durrell about it. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina, keeper of the Warsaw Zoo. The film, which opens in 1939, quickly establishes her resourcefulness and her humanity. We see her risking her life to save a baby elephant which can’t breathe properly. She rides on her bicycle across the zoo grounds, a Mary Poppins-like figure adored by the animals and zoo workers alike.

The zoo may look a little tatty and in need of paint but it is its own self-enclosed and magical kingdom. Here, Antonina and her very dour husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) try to keep the upheavals of the outside world at bay. With the Nazis about to invade Poland and German zoologist Dr Heck (Daniel Brühl) making advances on her and keen to steal the prize animals for his Mengele-like cross-breeding experiments, that’s not easy.

Caro has assembled a mixed cast that includes American, Belgian, Irish and German actors. She is clearly aiming to make a film with the epic sweep of a Schindler’s List. Like Oskar Schindler, Antonina provides refuge for Jews. She and her husband hide them in the basement of the zoo buildings. If the Nazis make an unexpected visit, Antonina will play the piano as a warning.

This is one of those movies in which all the characters speak slowly in English but with heavy eastern European accents to remind us that they are Polish. Partly as a result, the film has a strangely ersatz and stilted feel. Given the horrors of the ghetto, the sentimentality is often grating. Amid scenes of executions and round-ups, there are shots of lion cubs and rabbits.

The Zookeeper's Wife trailer

After the war begins and the zoo is turned into a pig farm, Antonina keeps a few cuddly animals and uses them to console traumatised victims of Nazi atrocities. She maintains her basic decency even as those around her lose their moral bearings. “Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. They’re not like people,” she reflects at one stage.

Some moments here are brutal and shocking. There are random executions on the streets. Families are loaded into cattle trucks. These scenes sit uncomfortably next to the more whimsical moments in which characters dote over the animals. At times, it’s also as if we are seeing events at a remove. The film’s frame of reference isn’t just the war itself but other movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist.

For all the striving for epic grandeur, the film feels like a chamber piece. Made on a relatively modest budget, it can only go so far when it comes to recreating the Warsaw Ghetto or the 1944 uprising. There just aren't the resources here to turn the film into a full-blown epic. 

Chastain is a fine actress but her character here, even if based on a real person, strains credibility. She's the selfless and courageous heroine, wife, mother, and zoologist who always thinks several steps ahead of everyone else. Antonina is so good and so unclouded by any moral doubts that she risks coming across as one-dimensional.

Rules Don’t Apply (12A)

★★★☆☆

Warren Beatty, 127 mins, starring:  Warren Beatty, Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Alec Baldwin

Hollywood biopics tend to take a linear “birth to death” approach to their subjects’ lives. But that’s not at all the strategy of Warren Beatty’s new film about the businessman, real estate mogul, inventor and film producer Howard Hughes. Taking its cue from its own title, Rules Don’t Apply jumps all over the place. Beatty, who scripted, produced, and stars in the film as well as directing it, starts the film in 1964 and then backtracks to the late 1950s. 

Generally, Hughes is portrayed as a dark and tormented figure: a Citizen Kane-like mogul who turns into a paranoid recluse. Beatty doesn’t skimp on the character’s eccentricities or his self-obsession but the tone of the film is more comic than tragic. Beatty opens the film with a quote from Hughes – “never check an interesting fact” – and then uses it to justify the licence he takes with events in his subject’s life. His screenplay isn’t above some smutty humour, throwing in jokes about Jane Russell’s breasts and Hughes’ relentless womanising.

There is an obvious pathos in seeing Beatty, now 80, as the ageing playboy whose drug addiction makes him “constipated and crazy”. His Hughes is clearly meant to be grotesque and overbearing. He sacks long-standing staff members on a whim. He spends hours watching re-runs of his First World War aviation movie Hell’s Angels.

He seems to be in the early stages of dementia. His paranoia is all consuming. So is his appetite for banana nut ice cream. At the same time, he’s still (sometimes) charming and charismatic. There’s a hint of Indiana Jones about him in his leather jacket and hat. He is both impulsive and calculating in the extreme. In one of the film’s stranger action interludes, we see him at the helm of a plane and performing such hair-raising acrobatic stunts that even the British colonel piloting the aircraft (Steve Coogan in Peter Sellers mode) is terrified.

Rules Don't Apply trailer

Beatty’s Hughes dominates the film but the story is only partly about him. The main characters are two youngsters who come into his orbit – and who are both dazzled and disgusted by him. There is Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), the fresh-faced chauffeur and would-be real estate mogul, and pretty starlet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), both working for Hughes in the late 1950s.

In a more conventional film, they’d fall in love. Here, they are as besotted by Hughes as by one another. The most grotesque scene in the film brings Marla, in her early 20s, and the ancient Hughes together as lovers. Neither Frank nor Marla develop as characters in the way you might expect. They’re stunted because of Hughes, who is continually stealing their limelight.

Rules Don’t Apply is digressive and episodic. Just as Hughes was rich and famous enough to do what he wanted, Beatty is in the privileged position of being able to take his film in whatever direction he pleases. He has gone to exhaustive lengths to recreate the Hollywood of the late 1950s, a Hollywood already in decline but which still looks magical as envisioned here. There are continual references to Hughes’ films, whether the John Wayne movie, Jet Pilot, or The Outlaw.

Hughes, of course, wasn’t just a film producer. He was a businessman and inventor. In Rules Don’t Apply, his shareholders are fretting that they never see him. They don’t know if he is competent to run his own business or whether the plane he designed will fly. What he exposes simply by staying out of sight is the extreme greed of his associates. He has money and they want it.

Rules Don’t Apply is a Howard Hughes movie done shaggy dog story style. The point here is to tantalise us with the prospect of a punch line that we can half guess right at the outset will never be delivered. There’s no “Rosebud” moment which suddenly explains the enigma of Hughes or what has been driving him all these years.

Instead, the film serves up a mish-mash of wildly contrasting scenes, each casting Hughes in a very different light. Audiences are likely to go through the same mix of emotions as Frank and Marla as they watch the film. They’ll be entranced, bored, exasperated and confused by turns. Is this a comedy? Is it a satire? Is it Beatty’s pet vanity project? What does it tell us either about its star or its subject?

These are all questions which aren’t easily answered. This is a determinedly oddball film but it’s one made with plenty of energy. At least, Beatty, at this advanced stage in his career, doesn’t appear to have lost any of his old youthful zest.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (12A)

★★★★☆

Juho Kuosmanen, 93 mins, starring: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, Joonas Saartamo, Olli Rahkonen, Joanna Haartti

Shot in black and white, Juuho Kuosmanen’s wondrously evocative boxing movie/love story The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is set in the early 1960s – and it looks as if it was made then too. It has the same low key naturalism and idiosyncratic humour found in classic new wave movies like A Blonde In Love and Closely Observed Trains.

The young Finnish director is telling the true story of a world championship lightweight bout between Olli and the brilliant American fighter Davey Moore that took place in Finland in 1962. The difference between this film and almost every other boxing movie ever made is in its emphasis. There’s no testosterone or trash talk here. Instead, the film is gentle, and quietly humorous.

Olli is a dreamy character who is deeply obsessed with Raja (Oona Airola), a home town girl. The boxing is almost incidental. What the film is really about is a key formative moment in Olli’s life. He and his manager (the shady and opportunistic Elis) go through the motions of hyping up the fight. They’re filmed and photographed. They glad hand the sponsors and give interviews. Olli’s mind, though, is elsewhere. When the blows from Davey Moore’s fists come raining down on him, he seems hardly to notice them. After all, as he has already told his manager: “I think I am in love.”

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