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THE QUEEN – Alexandre Desplat

September 29, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash in Paris on 31 August 1997, was something of a turning point in the modern history of the United Kingdom. Up until that time, the British royal family were generally looked upon with fondness. Sure, they had their moments of scandal, Prince Phillip continually said stupid things to people on foreign tours, and there was a section of society which called for them to be abolished and the country turned into a republic. But, beyond this, the House of Windsor was seen as a mighty figurehead, as people who represented the best interests of Britain at home and abroad, as a family to be looked up to and admired. However, the reaction of the Royal Family to the death of Diana caused unprecedented resentment and outcry. The Royal Family’s rigid adherence to protocol was interpreted by the public as a lack of compassion, and all of a sudden the tide turned against them. Now, the Royal Family was cold and insular, out of touch with the thoughts and feelings of the nation they ruled, and totally irrelevant to modern British life. Queen Elizabeth II in particular came in for special criticism, initially for her refusal to allow the Royal Standard on top of Buckingham Palace to fly at half mast, and later for her seemingly forced and insincere broadcast to the nation several days later.

This interesting modern history is the subject of director Stephen Frears’ new film The Queen, which looks at the events surrounding the death of Diana from the points of view of Queen Elizabeth II (played by Helen Mirren, in a role tipped for Academy Award consideration) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen). Frears’ all-star cast also includes James Cromwell as Prince Phillip, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair, and Sylvia Sims as the Queen Mother. The score for this very British story is, oddly, written by a Frenchman, Alexandre Desplat, working with Frears for the first time.

Since making his international splash in 2003 with the superb Girl With a Pearl Earring, Desplat has become one of the most refreshing and interesting new voices in film music, with such excellent scores as Birth, The Upside of Anger, Syriana, Casanova and Hostage to his name. Cleverly reflecting the dichotomy of the British monarchy, his score for The Queen is both classical and modern, in that it uses a standard symphony orchestra (the LSO), but augments it with a large amount of modern electronics, ensuring the listener that this is a contemporary score for a contemporary age. The theme for “The Queen” herself is noble and stately, with prominent French horns and timpani flourishes, but which also figures a harpsichord into the mix to allude to the historical nature of her title, and her position. Touches like this abound throughout The Queen, proving yet again that Desplat’s graceful orchestrations and thoughtful musical nuances are what make him among the best in the business.

Quite a lot of the score is quite rhythmic, and makes good use of the fluttering woodwinds he used in Birth; “Hills of Scotland” is a wonderful example of this, overlaying a number of flute, clarinet and oboe melodies over a light, prancing orchestral base. The jittery electronic undercurrent of the two “People’s Princess” cues give them a sense of unfocused energy, and as they build they work in a second statement of the bouncy harpsichord melody, this time accentuated by pianos and heavier percussion elements. A strident march accompanies Tony Blair in “A New Prime Minister”, who had only taken office four months previously, and was facing a massive national crisis at the beginning of his term at 10 Downing Street. His interactions with the Queen in “Elizabeth & Tony” and “Tony & Elizabeth” are almost comedic in their use of reaching string melodies, pizzicato violins, harps, xylophones, harpsichords, and waltz-like rhythms underneath the orchestra.

Conversely, quite a lot of the score is also quite downbeat, musically acknowledging the great sense of national loss and grief which overtook the British public at the time. “HRH” combines soft, moody bass and cello writing with a hesitantly beautiful flute theme, which is subsequently recapitulated in the lonely-sounding “The Stag” (where, somewhat oddly, it reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Shadow!). “Mourning”, as the name suggests, is the most morose of the lot, with heavy, resounding timpani hits overlaid by high, searching strings which segue into harpsichord pieces, warm strong chords. The finale, “Queen of Hearts”, ends on an emotional note, with a gentle version the main theme performed on a warm-sounding mandolin, accompanied by soft strings.

The conclusive piece, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Libera Me” from his 1868 work the Manzoni Requiem, is the actual operatic aria which was performed at Diana’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in London, by Lynne Dawson and the BBC Singers. It is, quite rightly, stately, and regal, and hugely emotional, but the live recording doesn’t really do the piece justice, and while its inclusion is certainly musically representative of the film, it somehow feels “tacked on”, and not at all fitting with the rest of the score.

The Queen is certainly not as spectacular or attention-grabbing as his work on Hostage or Firewall, or as classically beautiful as The Luzhin Defence or Birth, but nevertheless there is something about Desplat’s work on The Queen which is somehow mesmerising and enchanting. The rhythmic quality of the score keeps the album moving at a flowing pace, the sparkling orchestrations are defiantly English but never clichéd, and his effortlessly light touch with the quieter sections of the orchestra more than demonstrates his mastery of the craft. Recommended, especially for followers of this talented Frenchman’s increasingly impressive career.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Queen (2:09)
  • Hills of Scotland (2:25)
  • People’s Princess I (4:08)
  • A New Prime Minister (1:55)
  • H.R.H. (2:22)
  • The Stag (1:50)
  • Mourning (3:50)
  • Elizabeth & Tony (2:04)
  • River of Sorrow (1:59)
  • The Flowers of Buckingham (2:28)
  • The Queen Drives (1:48)
  • Night in Balmoral (1:09)
  • Tony & Elizabeth (2:04)
  • People’s Princess II (4:08)
  • Queen of Hearts (3:33)
  • Libera Me (written by Giuseppe Verdi, performed by Lynne Dawson and the BBC Singers) (6:27)

Running Time: 44 minutes 27 seconds

Milan M2-36185 (2006)

Music composed, conducted and orchestrated by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Additional orchestrations by Jean-Pascal Beintus. Featured musical soloists David Arch and Alison Stephens. Recorded and mixed by Andrew Dudman. Edited by Tony Lewis. Album produced by Emmanuel Chamboredon, Ian Hierons and Alexandre Desplat.

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