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HAMLET – Carter Burwell

hamlet-burwellOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the worst things about being a soundtrack reviewer is that, sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t think of anything to write about a particular score. I’ve struggled with Carter Burwell’s Hamlet for months, never being able to properly put into words my feelings about the music. I’ve listened to it a dozen times, and never been able to form any kind of opinion about the score, either positive or negative. And then it dawned on me that my basis for review should be precisely that: when I listen to Hamlet, I feel absolutely nothing. It provokes absolutely no reaction in me whatsoever. And, for a film score, that is probably the most damning criticism of all.

Hamlet has, of course, been filmed and re-filmed countless times over the years, from Laurence Olivier’s timeless classic representation to the unexpurgated version Kenneth Branagh committed to celluloid back in 1997. This version, directed by Michael Almereyda (who was previously responsible for the art-house hits Nadja and The Eternal), actually owes much more to Baz Luhrmann’s super-slick vision of Romeo + Juliet from 1997 than the stage-bound original, taking Shakespeare’s original themes of love, madness, murder and betrayal, and focusing them on a group of young socialites in modern day New York. Almereyda’s Hamlet features an all-star cast including Ethan Hawke, Julia Styles, Kyle McLachlan, Bill Murray, Diane Venora and Liev Schreiber, and opens in the UK during the winter.

Basically, if you’re familiar with any of Carter Burwell’s previous scores, you’ll already know what Hamlet sounds like. Gods and Monsters, The Chamber, The Spanish Prisoner, The General’s Daughter, and so on and so forth. It is perhaps to Burwell’s credit that he’s managed to develop such a distinctive personal style over the years, but I think one of the other problems with this score, as with many of his previous works, is that there is just far too little deviation from his tried and tested formula. More often than not, when I listen to a Burwell score, all I hear is a bass line with a morose little melody playing over the top. Only when he really branches out, as he did on films such as Fargo and Conspiracy Theory, does he really come into his own. I realise that I’m making a load of huge generalisations about Burwell’s career here, but I find his the vast majority music (with a couple of notable exceptions) to be bland and predictable.

The overall tone of Hamlet is one of oppression; the orchestra plays in its lowest registers for virtually the entire score, and each cue contains such an overbearing feeling of sorrow and platitude that, by the end of the CD, it becomes almost unbearable; you yearn for something more cheerful. Having said that, one or two tracks are worth mentioning as being highlights of the disc – ‘Darkroom’ and ‘Laertes and Ophelia at the Guggenheim’ both contain a moody acoustic guitar solo and a searching violin, ‘Wiring Ophelia’ rises to a darkly operatic crescendo half way through the track; ‘The Funeral’ incorporates a brooding cello passage into the orchestra; ‘Claudius Prayer’ offers a despondent elegy for one of the play’s most tragic scenes. Similarly, the cues which contain performances of the main theme (especially ‘Too Too Solid Flesh’ and ‘Hamlet Walks the Plane’) emerge as being the most satisfying tracks on the disc, even though the theme itself to the one he wrote for Gods and Monsters for comfort.

As music for the film itself, especially taking into account the bitterness and savagery inherent in Shakespeare’s original tale, Burwell’s score for Hamlet fulfils all its purposes. It effectively enhances the terrible misdeeds and treachery that befall its characters, and presumably provides the film with an appropriate note of despair and anguish. As standalone music, though, it takes some sitting through, and is far too familiar for its own good. I am fully aware that Burwell has many admirers in the film music world. Unfortunately (and with exceptions) I cannot say that I am one of them.

Rating: **

Track Listing:

  • Too Too Solid Flesh (2:44)
  • Murder Most Foul (3:20)
  • Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1:50)
  • Darkroom (3:12)
  • To Be or Not To Be (2:42)
  • Wiring Ophelia (4:48)
  • The Funeral (1:58)
  • Claudius Prayer (3:04)
  • Hamlet Walks the Plane (2:23)
  • Laertes and Ophelia at the Guggenheim (1:56)
  • Claudius Incited Laertes (4:50)
  • The Duel (2:52)
  • The End (3:29)

Running Time: 39 minutes 14 seconds

Varése Sarabande VSD-6125 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Mastered by Erick Labson. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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