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GREY OWL – George Fenton

February 18, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

greyowlOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Grey Owl, the latest work by director Richard Attenborough, is one of those rare films which suffers the indignity of not being able to find a distributor. Considering the talent both in front of and behind the camera, the American market was surprisingly reluctant to screen the film in theatres, and ultimately it went straight-to-video there (it played in Canada, and will receive a limited opening in the UK later this year). Attenborough, whose previous directorial masterpieces have included Gandhi, Cry Freedom and In Love and War, has by all accounts made a film which is visually beautiful but dramatically and emotionally lacking.

The film, based on a true story, is a romantic drama with a “green” twist starring Pierce Brosnan as Archie Grey Owl, a trapper in Canada in the early 1930s who meets and falls in love with a young Iroquois woman named Pony (Annie Galipeau) who lives in the city and asks him to teach her Indian ways. However, Pony is appalled when she sees how Archie traps and kills the animals, and appeals to his environmental side for him to stop killing. As a result, Archie becomes a guide, writer, and conservation advisor to the Canadian government. His work with beavers in Prince Albert National Park brings him world-wide acclaim, along and invitations to lecture in England, but Archie soon realises he needs to keep his blood-soaked past under wraps.

With one or two exceptions, all of Attenborough’s recent films have been scored by George Fenton; Grey Owl continues the trend. Whatever limitations the film itself may have, the same cannot be said of Fenton’s music, which is often strikingly exotic, beautifully romantic, and generally pleasing to listen to. The main title, as is often the case in Fenton’s music, starts the ball rolling magnificently with a series of evocative ethnic flute solos combine with the lush string sonorities of the orchestra. Like his recent masterpieces Ever After, Dangerous Beauty and Anna and the King, Grey Owl sets its stall out early.

Unfortunately, the rest of the score does not live up to the promise of the opening, instead descending into dreaded “Snow Falling on Cedars” territory, presenting cue after cue of quiet, unassuming atmospherics lifted only by the inclusion of a particular solo instrument, a new rhythm or texture, or an increase in volume. This is not to say that the music is in any way poor – on the contrary, the sense of oneness with nature and general sense of peace that Fenton’s music conveys is quite attractive in its way. It’s just that, after the majesty and beauty of the initial cue, it is something of a let down to discover that many of the tracks that follow are not in the same league.

Undulating ethnic flutes offset by soft, wistful string textures form the bulk of the score, emphasising Archie’s compassion for and relationship with the natural world around him, and the blossoming romance with Pony. Cues such as ‘The Hunt’, ‘Takes Two to Kiss’ and the lovely ‘I Swore I Wouldn’t’ and ‘Archie’s Bedroom’, adhere to this style of scoring, and are certainly pleasant enough, but are never anything more.

Buried deep within the score, though, are a few cues which emerge like jewels in the sand, maintaining the level of interest. ‘Archie Heads North’ raises the spirits with some triumphant, pioneering trumpet calls, timpani rolls, and Native American yelps, while ‘The Frozen Lake’ and ‘Looking for the Mick’ are two of Fenton’s few moments of pure action scoring, the former all slashing violins and war drums, the latter sounding like they recorded a rattlesnake. In fact, one of the best tracks is the unusually-titled ‘Savage Shake in Shoes’ is a lively dance for the full orchestra that sounds like a cross between Aaron Copland and Riverdance. The finale, from ‘I Do Love You’ through to the six-minute ‘End Title’ provide the longest sustained melodic presence of the score, and round things off nicely.

Additional music on Grey Owl is accredited to David Lawson, whose work I have never come across before. I can only assume that his contribution is comparable to that of Peter Buffett on the John Barry scores Dances With Wolves and The Scarlet Letter, in that he has brought a degree of ethnic authenticity to some of the cues which feature traditional Iroquois rhythms. Fans of Fenton, and those with the patience to sit through, are likely to appreciate the soothing tones present in Grey Owl. It’s a quiet, moody score with much to recommend, but little to stir the soul.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:16)
  • The Hunt (4:42)
  • World of Your Ancestors (1:18)
  • Takes Two to Kiss (1:45)
  • Archie Heads North (2:24)
  • Grey Owl (1:25)
  • The Frozen Lake (2:40)
  • Archie and Pony (2:17)
  • I Swore I Wouldn’t (2:57)
  • Pony Saves the Kittens (2:19)
  • Looking for the Mick (2:04)
  • Journey to Elk River (1:27)
  • Savage Shake in Shoes (1:41)
  • The Tourists Arrive (2:00)
  • Champlin Flies/Get Lost Folks (1:40)
  • A Three Month Tour (2:21)
  • Archie Sees His Aunts (2:09)
  • Archie’s Bedroom (1:56)
  • I’ve Missed You (1:50)
  • I Do Love You (3:21)
  • Archie’s Last Speech (2:16)
  • End Title (6:12)

Running Time: 55 minutes 22 seconds

Label X LXE-710 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by Geoff Alexander and Jeff Atmajian. Additional music by David Lawson. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Edited by Graham Sutton. Mastered by Torsten Lenk. Album produced by George Fenton and Stefan Rambow.

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