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CHARLOTTE GRAY – Stephen Warbeck

December 28, 2001 Leave a comment Go to comments

charlottegrayOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the four years since he won the Oscar for his score for Shakespeare In Love, British composer Stephen Warbeck’s stock has risen considerably. At first, I was guilty of dismissing him as a flash in the pan: after all, prior to that film, his only work of note was for the popular UK crime series Prime Suspect and the critically acclaimed Mrs. Brown, at that time his only internationally released score. Since then, however, Warbeck has continually surprised and delighted me with score after score of exquisite music. First came Billy Elliott, then Quills, and then Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, easily one of my favorite scores of 2001. The new level of expectation on Warbeck is such that now I look forward to each new work by him, hoping that he can surpass his last effort each time – and it comes as something of a shock to learn that, with Charlotte Gray, he has not.

The movie is British studio Film Four’s big Oscar push for 2001: its one of those big, dramatic, romantic epics that Academy voters love, and features meaty performances which actors and actresses with eyes on golden statuettes can really sink their teeth into. Directed by Gillian Armstrong and adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks, Cate Blanchett stars as the titular character, Charlotte Gray, a Scottish woman who, when her RAF pilot boyfriend Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones) is lost on a sortie over France during World War II, joins up with the Resistance to find him, and bring him home. Adopting the pseudonym Dominique, Charlotte finds soon herself in the thick of the action, working undercover as a courier-cum-agent, running errands for handsome Gallic freedom fighter Julien Levade (Billy Crudup) and his father (Michael Gambon), and acting as an intermediary between the British and the French, all the while seeking out her lost love.

Its perhaps unfair to say that the music of Charlotte Gray is a disappointment because, had any composer other than Warbeck written it, I’m sure it would have been received with much more enthusiasm. It’s certainly attractive, continuously listenable, instrumentally bright, dramatically apt, and features a lovely theme. Perhaps I have simply been spoiled by Warbeck’s previous output because, despite all these things, upon the conclusion of the score I was still left with a sense of “is that it?”

The problem with Charlotte Gray as a whole is the fact that 80% of the score is pure filler music. Good music, for sure, and which surely works well in the film: it’s just that, on CD, it never really goes anywhere. Warbeck allows his score to ramble on, presenting orchestral tones, mood music, occasional instrumental solos, and so on, without saying or doing anything particularly interesting. It may be an unusual criticism, as it could be said that a film composer’s job is not to be noticed, but Warbeck is a little too anonymous for his own good here. Unlike his work on, for example, Quills and Captain Corelli, Charlotte Gray just fades into the background. The other thing which may dissuade potential listeners from indulging in this score is its overall downbeat tone: Charlotte Gray is not a score to lighten the mood or charm the soul. It does not recapture the sparkle and energy that American listeners found so appealing about Shakespeare in Love.

The album opens with some interesting rhythmic string interplay and Dermot Crehan’s mournful violin lament in ‘The Train’, establishing a trend which re-occurs in several later tracks, notably ‘Plane to France’ and ‘The Gendarmes’, in which the percussion section actually seeks to mimic the sound of a locomotive rumbling along its tracks. There are some interesting woodwind effects in ‘The Threat’, which stand at odds with the more urgent and violent drumbeat, and a lovely piano solo performed by Eleanor Alberga in ‘After the Letter’, but the rest of the middle section of the CD barely registers on the “ear-prick” scale.

The score’s romantic main theme first appears in ‘Charlotte Gray’, as a duet between John Parricelli’s accordion and Dario Rosetti-Bonell’s expressive guitar, before giving way to a soft wash of strings. As is often the case with Warbeck, the romantic theme is warm and longing, hopeful yet slightly morose, tragic yet passionate. Charlotte’s Theme is by far the centerpiece of the score, re-appearing in ‘The Loft’, for solo piano and full orchestra in ‘Nobody’s Ordinary Now’, and with a rich gypsy flavor the penultimate track, ‘I’ll Find You’, with Warbeck’s orchestra playing alongside accordion, fiddle, and tambourine.

However, the last track on the album, ‘My Name is Charlotte Gray’, is the score’s selling point. This is the cue when everything that has come before it comes to fruition with a massive, spine-tingling recapitulation of the Charlotte’s Theme, beefed up for the full orchestra and enhanced by rolling timpanis, crashing cymbals and soaring performances. The music from this cue features in the film’s emotional trailer, and it is stunningly good. The five minutes of scintillating music at the end of this album more than make up for the rest of the score’s many shortcomings, and adds a half star rating to an otherwise three-star score.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • The Train (2:57)
  • Charlotte Gray (5:43)
  • The Plane to France (1:41)
  • The Village (5:26)
  • The Threat (3:18)
  • The Loft (2:43)
  • The Decision (2:32)
  • The Tunnel (2:49)
  • The Field (2:39)
  • Nobody’s Ordinary Now (1:40)
  • After the Letter (2:32)
  • The Gendarmes (3:42)
  • Waiting (4:46)
  • I’ll Find You (1:56)
  • My Name is Charlotte Gray (5:01)

Running Time: 49 minutes 25 seconds

Sony Classical SK-89829

Music composed by Stephen Warbeck. Conducted by Nick Ingman. Orchestrations by Stephen Warbeck, Paul Englishby, Andrew Green and Nick Ingman. Featured musical soloists Eleanor Alberga and Dermot Crehan. Recorded and mixed by Chris Dibble and Nick Wollage. Edited by Andy Glen. Mastered by Mike Brown. Album produced by Stephen Warbeck.

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