The cast and crew of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” the Shoah-themed drama that opens Friday, March 31, could be mistaken for a parody of current film industry multinational production setups. The lead actress, Jessica Chastain, is an American, and her main supporting players are Belgian, German, Israeli and Irish. The director, Niki Caro, is a New Zealander, the cinematographer is from Prague, the production designer from London and the screenwriter is a Yale Drama School-trained actress.

Probably none of this would matter if “The Zookeeper’s Wife” were a film with a contemporary setting in almost any genre. As major cities come to resemble one another more and more, the need for filmmakers to imbue mainstream work with anything resembling atmosphere and texture sadly fades into the background.

Jessica Chastain in “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Courtesy

However, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an historical drama recounting the true story of Antonina Zabinski and her husband Dr. Jan Zabinski, who ran the Warsaw Zoo as the Second World War approached and who worked heroically to save Polish Jews after the Nazi occupation brought about the shutdown of their facilities. To tell this story well, a film would need to be redolent of the air of the Polish capital as it was then, with writing and performances that were steeped in that atmosphere or reflected, at the very least, a familiarity and comfort with the period and its culture. Otherwise the result will be a well-intentioned, competently crafted but bland genre piece.

Which is, regrettably, exactly what the new film is.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens breezily enough, with Antonina (Chastain) scurrying around the zoo grounds by bicycle, followed by a galloping baby camel. We are introduced quickly to the zoo staff and inmates and the seemingly idyllic lives of all therein. Shortly after, the film sounds its first notes of impending catastrophe when it introduces Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), zoologist to the Fuhrer, at a cocktail party thrown by the Zabinskis. We meet Heck as he recounts an anecdote in which he reluctantly kills a beautiful animal in the wild, a rather clumsy piece of signposting that indicates that his own relationship to his profession is less cuddly than Jan’s. He confirms that impression almost immediately after the Nazis invade, callously shooting the zoo’s eagle, murmuring to an adjutant that he wants it stuffed and mounted for his office.

If nothing else, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an unwelcome reminder that Shoah movies can easily become little more than a subgenre of the WWII combat film, but with the violence and vigor of the best of those replaced by a stifled nobility of purpose that does a disservice not only to the audience but to the memory of the victims and resisters.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this material. In fact, the panic of Warsaw residents facing Nazi bombers is rather deftly presented with Caro making creative use of abrupt changes of point of view and camera direction to create a sense of chaotic terror.

But with that striking exception, none of it feels particularly real, fraught with tension, dramatic. The sets could be on any sound stage in any film studio in the world. The streets, the zoo, the Warsaw Ghetto are all antiseptic, airless and lifeless. The welter of mismatched accents is jarring and the plodding, by-the-numbers writing reduces the film to a series of tableaux in which characters do not so much evolve as change labels. Heck goes from “sinister but charming scientist” to “mustache-twirling SS officer with weird counter-evolutionist obsessions.” Johan Heldenbergh, woefully underused as Jan, makes a similar progression from “earnest rationalist and devoted husband” to “pillar of righteousness” then to “hurt, jealous husband,” finally becoming “stalwart Polish patriot.”

A scene from “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” Courtesy

Chastain alone remains utterly unchanging, always the super-capable Resistance Mom, raising her son perfectly, nurturing the animals, guarding and guiding her Jewish friends through their traumas with infinite patience, all the while fending off Heck’s advances. She does so burdened by a Polish accent that she seems to have borrowed from Meryl Streep’s equally noble Sophie, from “Sophie’s Choice,” and the resulting performance is as unerringly false as Streep’s earlier version.

That rather foolish choice (yes, pun intended) is of a piece with a film that looks like the product of many hours of library research and a deathly fear of sullying the seriousness of its subject matter.

Compare “The Zookeeper’s Wife” to Caro’s best film to date, “Whale Rider,” and you can see how invigorating, how liberating it must be for a filmmaker to be handling material whose setting is part of her DNA, focused on a group of real human beings with a typical mix of shortcomings and virtues, living their daily lives for better and worse. Those are precisely the qualities that her new film lacks.

If nothing else, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is an unwelcome reminder that Shoah movies can easily become little more than a subgenre of the WWII combat film, but with the violence and vigor of the best of those replaced by a stifled nobility of purpose that does a disservice not only to the audience but to the memory of the victims and resisters.

In short, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” is just another wartime romantic suspense film. It just happens to be about somebody saving Jews from the Nazis.

The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens Friday, March 31 in wide release theaters throughout the five boroughs, Long Island and New Jersey.