In Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, we follow the story of Antonina and Jan Żabiński. The couple who were the account keepers of the Warsaw Zoo were integral in saving hundreds of Jews during the German invasion of Poland in Word War II. The movie itself is based on the non-fiction book from Diane Ackerman who wrote it based off the unpublished diary of Antonina. The score sees Harry Gregson-Williams providing quite a stirring musical narrative that captures the core emotional journey of the story very well.
I've always found Harry to have this way of scoring tragic situations with just the right touch of melancholy, with the music hinting at a loss of innocence yet still keeping that innocence in arm's reach. It feels like beauty but with a curtain pulled over it. I think Harry captured that same tone in "Evacuating London" from Narnia and even parts of Kingdom Of Heaven or even Spy Game. The opening track gives us the central theme that surfaces here and there, but the body of the score does its best to remain true to the organic emotions of the story without overdoing it. That “touch of melancholy” is absolutely essentially, especially in a PG-13 Hollywood movie about WW2. A lot of the criticism about the film is that its too shiny and sort of cleaned from the true horrors of the war. I can see that being a valid argument, but also can see it as the film trying to focus on the human story at the center of it vs being about the horrors of war. The movie is not trying to directly aim at devaluing the atrocities that happened. If you focus on the story and what the music is doing, that is what is echoed. The score paints these moments of humanity that seem to resonate deep with a very subtle approach, and of course in Harry’s signature style.
Harry has acted as a mentor to the very talented Stephanie Economou over the past few years, and here she wrote additional music as well as provided vocals as she has in the past. In the entirety of the score there is sadness and beauty wrapped up together, innocence masked by tragedy. It never feels like crying out. Look at the vocals in track 8, a traditional Passover Seder vocal actually performed by Shira Haas' character in the film and compare it to something like the way John Williams used vocals in Munich, which was to echo pure pain in a full-on lament. Both very effective, both adapting to different stories with different focuses. But it shows that the aim of The Zookeeper's Wife wasn't to shine a light on the horrors, but keep focus on the inspiring qualities of the story. The score works towards a really powerful conclusion to the final act in the 7.5min track “Jan Returns”. Everything comes together and feels like that curtain covering innocence and tragedy is lifted.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is an intimate and emotional score that tries to find moments of humanity and bring those to life without ever being melodramatic, and succeeds in doing so. Harry’s talents for scoring tragedy while still retaining a sense of beauty and innocence is on full display here. The score and film itself may have a glossy finish that shines too bright in some instances, but overall everything here works to leave a lasting impact. The theme itself is wonderful and the way the score works towards its emotionally resonating conclusion reflects Harry’s talents as a veteran storyteller. The Zookeeper’s Wife is something that should resonate deeply if you’re looking for a story focusing on the good of humanity more so than the bad.
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