Home > Reviews > PLUNKETT & MACLEANE – Craig Armstrong

PLUNKETT & MACLEANE – Craig Armstrong

plunkett&macleaneOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The phenomenal success of the film William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet was not only responsible for making bonafide movie stars out of its leading players, Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes – it also thrust the name of Scottish composer Craig Armstrong into the soundtrack limelight. Armstrong, who won a BAFTA Award for his work with Nellee Hooper and Marius De Vreis on that film, is an interesting and somewhat unconventional writer. He doggedly refuses to be labeled either as an orchestral or electronic specialist, and has proven that he is adept at creating both modern soundscapes, as in Romeo + Juliet and his other recent work, Best Laid Plans, as well as “proper” music, as heard in Peter Mullan’s acclaimed drama Orphans. With Plunkett & Macleane, Armstrong has shifted again and combined both these markedly different styles into one engaging whole.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge that Plunkett & Macleane is an intentionally anachronistic film. Directed by Jake Scott (Ridley’s son) and starring Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller, it tells the basically true tale of two highwaymen in Edwardian London who embark upon a free-wheeling life of crime, seducing a beautiful noblewoman (Liv Tyler) and upsetting the local law (Ken Stott) en route. They were certainly not influenced by Robin Hood, though – as they film’s tag line explains, “they rob from the rich – and that’s it”. Where Scott’s film differs from others in the genre is in its use of language, which despite the olden-day setting is thoroughly modern – the boys speak and think as though they’ve just emerged from a 1999 Brit flick. In the context of the film, this is not wholly successful and, although it is certainly entertaining, feels rather like a triumph of style over substance. The score, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether.

It opens sensibly enough with the gloriously rich ‘Hymn’, performed by an unaccompanied choir, the sound of which Armstrong is obviously fond (he uses them regularly throughout the score). It is in the second track, ‘Unseen’, that the music sets out its unconventional stall, combining a large, robust orchestra with lots and lots of pulsating synthesizers. The unexpected thing is that, on CD, it works a treat. It’s almost as though Armstrong is trying to emulate Hans Zimmer or, to a lesser extent, Graeme Revell by making his music as potent as possible by the use of these multiple mediums. Where the Scotsman is more successful, however, is in the fact that his themes seem stronger, and somehow the combination of the acoustic and the electronic seems more natural and less forced than his contemporaries. As the music progresses, the two styles regularly intermingle.

There are lush romantic themes in ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Love Declared’, a slightly haughty period piece for the effete aristocrat ‘Rochester’ and some glorious choral work in ‘Revelations’, which is complemented by the pulse-pounding action of the enormously enjoyable ‘Robbery’, ‘Business’ and ‘Escape’. In addition, there is a menacing motif for the evil Chance, characterized by a dissonant cimbalom, while towards the end of the score, the choir once again becomes more prominent, especially in the terribly haunting ‘Hanging’ which gradually reaches a spine-tingling vocal crescendo. However, the most memorable cue for me is undoubtedly ‘Ball’, during which the well-bred members of the local London society dance not to the sounds of a string quartet, but instead to pumping techno music. It’s a bold move on Scott and Armstrong’s behalf, and one which breaks all the firmly observed rules of a costume drama, but it works superbly. Again, intentional anachronisms.

It will be interesting to see where Craig Armstrong goes from here. While he’s still riding on the metaphorical crest of a wave, he’s signed to write the score for Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector, which will probably give him an opportunity to write something fully orchestral. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, Armstrong occasionally reminds me of Michael Nyman in terms of style, but with much more zest. If these first few assignments are an indication of his future, then we are in for some spectacular results from this man. For sure, Plunkett & Macleane comes recommended.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Hymn (1:53)
  • Unseen (4:35)
  • Ruby (2:45)
  • Rebecca (2:38)
  • Rochester (1:41)
  • Robbery (3:37)
  • Ball (3:56)
  • Chance (2:17)
  • Business (4:06)
  • Chance’s Men (0:44)
  • Revelations (2:53)
  • Trouble (0:20)
  • Duel (1:49)
  • Love Declared (1:11)
  • Disaster (2:06)
  • Hanging (4:17)
  • Escape (1:15)
  • Resolutions (2:37)
  • Houses In Motion (written by David Byrne and Brian Eno, performed by Helen White and Lewis Parker) (4:04)
  • Childhood (1:49)

Running Time: 50 minutes 46 seconds

Melankolic 7243-8-47350-29 (1999)

Music composed by Craig Armstrong. Conducted by Cecilia Weston. Performed by The London Session Orchestra and Metro Voices. Orchestrations by Craig Armstrong and Matt Dunkley. Featured musical soloists Gavyn Wright and Heather Corbett. Special vocal performance by Catherine Bott. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Mastered by Kevin Metcalf. Album produced by Craig Armstrong and Stephen Hilton.

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