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The Zookeeper’s Wife (Harry Gregson-Williams)

April 11, 2017


Harry Gregson-Williams, 2017, Filmtrax
14 tracks, 40:56

Having already written music for a lion in a wardrobe, Harry Gregson-Williams now turns his talents to scoring animals in a zoo and their dedicated zookeeper.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Based on real events The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the account of keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion. The film is directed by Niki Caro (Whale Rider, and she’s rumoured to direct the live version of Mulan), and stars Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh.

What does it sound like? And is it any good?

The album opens with “Warsaw Zoo, 1939”. This is a great cue, for two reasons. The first reason is that the title succinctly sets a place and a time. The other reason is because it’s a fabulous piece of music. At a shade over 5 minute, Gregson-Williams is able to take you, the listener, on a journey. There’s a muted piano (Harry doesn’t like sharp piano sounds), a mesmerising clock-like rhythm for plucked strings and some lovely woodwind harmonies. Oboe introduces one of the main themes, which will return frequently throughout the score. The opening cue starts quite slow, but as the track progresses it picks up speed; and the whole thing becomes more playful. It is utterly charming, beautifully orchestrated and never forces itself on you. It’s some of Gregson-Williams most mature writing to date.

It’s very much a score for softer, faded colours. Oboe is never far away, adding a touch of romance; strings and cello add a sense of melancholy. Piano keeps everything grounded, as pianos do. At times the score reminds me of Thomas Newman; just something about how the oboe and the plucked strings work together.

There are a few moments of suspense or action; the story is set during the war after all. Dark strings, electronic pulses and percussion are utilised to increase the tension; though these moments are brief. There is a surprising amount of electronics (and effects) present throughout the score, but you’d barely notice it. The synth sounds seem very carefully chosen and blend in almost unnoticeably with the warm orchestral parts. You can hear breathy pads, fluttering guitar notes, soft drones. Actually, I think I even heard a few sampled strings, but it took me a good few times and then made wonder how much more may be sampled here without us even noticing? Gregson-Williams also applies a fair amount of effects, but again it blends in so nicely that you’d have to pay special attention to notice. And again… it shows such maturity (from an already well established composer).

It’s an easy score to like; and an easy one to admire. It is pure class from start to finish. The only thing, perhaps, is that the music always remains fairly low-key. As ridiculously charming as it is, I don’t think there’s one cue that really grabs you by the throat. The opener and the 7 minute finale are the absolute highlights here… but it’s like the meticulousness of the composition and orchestrations just, and only just, hamper the overall enthusiasm. I would’ve loved to have heard if only one real big burst of joy and romance, but it just stops shy of any of that. It’s a minor point, really. The Zookeeper’s Wife is an exquisite little work. Warm, intimate, mature.

Rating [4/5]


01. Warsaw Zoo, 1939
02. The Bombings
03. Aftermath
04. The Escape
05. Pray for Us
06. Wall Paint
07. Bring Them Out
08. Burning the Ghetto
09. Come Back to Us
10. In Plain Sight
11. Heck’s Realization
12. Refugees
13. Home Again
14. Jan Returns

Review (C) 2017 Synchrotones

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