Home > Reviews > KINGDOM OF HEAVEN – Harry Gregson-Williams

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN – Harry Gregson-Williams

kingdomofheavenOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

As the first “major” epic of 2005, much was expected of director Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a would-be sweeping tale of love and honor during the time of the Crusades. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, a young blacksmith in 11th century France who is in mourning having recently buried his wife and child. Into his life during this dark period comes Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson), Balian’s estranged father, who has decided to make himself known to his only son. Having agreed to make a journey to Jerusalem to atone for his sins, and having finally made his peace with his with father, a battle on the road to Messina leaves Godfrey mortally wounded. As the new Baron of Ibelin, Balian arrives in Jerusalem allied to the leper king, Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), and the Lord Marshall, Tiberias (Jeremy  Irons), and quickly makes an enemy in the shape of Templar knight Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) – a rift made greater when Balian has an affair with Guy’s wife, Sibylla (Eva Green). Meanwhile, in the lands surrounding the Holy City, the Arab leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) is massing an army of 200,000 men to take back Jerusalem from the Christians who have occupied it for 100 years.

As a film-going experience, Kingdom of Heaven was something of a disappointment. As an amalgam of other, better films – notably Gladiator, Lord of the Rings and Braveheart – it failed to make an impression on its own terms. Orlando Bloom is no Russell Crowe, the Battle of Kerak never comes close to recapturing the intensity of Falkirk, and Saladin’s storming of the walls of Jerusalem comes across as a cut-price Helm’s Deep without the Orcs. The film is technically magnificent – the cinematography, art direction and costume design are faultless – and there are great scenery-chewing supporting terms from Jeremy Irons and Brendan Gleeson especially, but one never really feels anything for the characters or their plight. It’s like watching a well-made History Channel special rather than an engrossing, epic film.

In the film music world, much was made of the fact that Harry Gregson-Williams swapped projects with Hans Zimmer (who went and did Madagascar instead) on Kingdom of Heaven; pre-release, it was expected that Scott’s film would see the German revisiting the popular power anthem/world music fusion that made his score for Gladiator so famous. It is to Gregson-Williams’s infinite credit that he chose to take a totally different route in writing music for this medieval epic and come up with something that actually brings to mind some of the work of James Horner. Unfortunately, and for the most part, the score for Kingdom of Heaven fails to greatly impress. It is a score with smaller ambitions, somewhat limited emotional power, and surprisingly few moments of truly memorable excellence.

It’s not that Gregson-Williams’s score is badly composed or wrong for the film: it’s just that it’s unutterably bland. As I write this now, listening to the score for perhaps the seventh or eighth time, I find myself failing to identify recurring themes, and wondering how I managed to play through the first nine tracks without really noticing anything worth picking out as a highlight. It’s the ultimate in film music wallpaper: always there, adding an indiscernible something to the overall feel, but never really doing anything interesting enough to warrant special attention.

Written for a full symphony orchestra, assorted electronic embellishments, various ancient instruments from the time period, and a host of choirs and solo vocalists, Kingdom of Heaven is nothing if not authentic. Gregson-Williams takes great pains to transplant listeners into the time and place, and in those terms succeeds admirably. Most of the few memorable moments of the score come when the choir takes center stage. The choirs – The Bach Choir and the Choir of the Kings Consort – play a prominent role throughout the score, adding weight and dramatic intensity to a number of cues, sometimes singing in Latin, at other times Arabic, or often simply adding a wordless musical color to Gregson-Williams’s orchestra. The fade-in fade-out choir of “Crusaders” and “The Battle of Kerak” bring to mind a similar motif James Newton Howard’s used on The Postman, while “Rise a Knight” and the pseudo-liturgical calls of “Coronation” occasionally rise to magisterial heights.

One interesting touch is Gregson-Williams’s use of the ancient viol, an instrument best described as a mini-cello, and which is performed by members of the English musical troupe Fretwork in cues such as the opening “Burning the Past”, the upbeat travelogue-style world music of “To Jerusalem”, and the powerful, regal “The King”. What little action music exists can be found in the aforementioned “The Battle of Kerak” and “Wall Breached”, which rely on heavy percussion, vicious orchestral frenzies, serious-sounding choral performances, or combinations of the three. Of course, with Gregson-Williams being an alumni of the Media Ventures organization, it was inevitable that some of the in-house stylistics would creep into the mix, from the inclusion of electric string instruments and the use of male voices as a pedal point, to the ubiquitous duduk/vocal combo offset by a modern rhythmic beat (as in “A New World” and “The Pilgrim Road”).

However, it is perhaps most telling that Scott’s use of tracked-in music by Jerry Goldsmith, Graeme Revell, Marco Beltrami and Patrick Cassidy (Hannibal) in the final mix ultimately results in the most powerful musical moments. That Cassidy’s beautiful aria “Vide Cor Meum” from Hannibal during the young King’s funeral and Goldsmith’s stirring “Valhalla” music from The Thirteenth Warrior during Balian’s rousing speech are the two most memorable scenes in film music terms goes to show just how underwhelming Gregson-Williams’s contribution was to the final product.

I can’t quite put my finger on why Kingdom of Heaven failed to capture me. Harry Gregson-Williams is inarguably one of film music’s rising stars, and has shown through recent scores such as Shrek, Sinbad and Team America that he is a wonderfully talented and creative individual. As I said before, it’s not even that Kingdom of Heaven is especially bad: it just lacks a certain something, a spark, a moment of brilliance, to lift it out of the sludge of “bland” film music. Gregson-Williams fans, and probably many other film music fans out there, with certainly find much to enjoy in this score. For whatever reason, it just didn’t do it for me.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Burning the Past (2:42)
  • Crusaders (1:39)
  • Swordplay (2:03)
  • A New World (4:21)
  • To Jerusalem (1:37)
  • Sibylla (1:50)
  • Ibelin (2:14)
  • Rise a Knight (2:42)
  • The King (5:53)
  • The Battle of Kerak (5:34)
  • Terms (4:26)
  • Better Man (3:23)
  • Coronation (3:01)
  • An Understanding (4:14)
  • Wall Breached (3:41)
  • The Pilgrim Road (4:07)
  • Saladin (4:42)
  • Path to Heaven (1:34)
  • Light of Life (Ibelin Reprise) (performed by Natacha Atlas) (2:14)

Running Time: 62 minutes 04 seconds

Sony Classical SK-94419 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Orchestrations by Harry Gregson-Williams and Alastair King. Additional music by Stephen Barton. Special vocal performances by Natacha Atlas, The Bach Choir and The Choir of the Kings Consort. Featured musical soloists Wendy Gillespie, Asako Morikawa, Susanna Pell, Richard Boothby, Richard Campbell and Richard Tunnicliffe (“Fretwork”). Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams and Peter Cobbin.

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