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THE PAINTED VEIL – Alexandre Desplat

December 22, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The winner of the Golden Globe for Best Score of 2006, The Painted Veil caps off a truly remarkable year for 45 year old French composer Alexandre Desplat. His other two major 2006 scores – Firewall and The Queen – were both met with general critical acclaim, and further cemented his position as one of the most exciting composers to emerge in Hollywood in recent years. It’s easy to forget that just three years ago he was a virtual unknown outside of his native country, and that his international stature has been built up over the course of just four or five scores.

The Painted Veil is based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is directed by John Curran, and stars Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones and Diana Rigg. Set in rural China in the early years of the 20th century, it examines the relationship between Walter Fane (Norton) and his wife Kitty (Watts), whose marriage has become strained after Walter – who is more interested in his medical work than her – discovers she has had an affair with an English aristocrat. To avoid the scandal of admitting adultery in public, Kitty agrees to accompany Walter to the Far East, where he is helping to combat a deadly cholera outbreak amongst the local population. There, isolated from the world she knows, and sharing a house with a husband who will barely acknowledge her, Kitty examines her life’s choices, and tries to save her marriage. As well as being lauded for its stunning cinematography (it is the first American-funded movie in many years to actually film on location in China), a great deal of praise has been heaped on Desplat’s intimate score, and with good reason.

It’s interesting to note how, in such a short space of time, an identifiable Alexandre Desplat ‘sound’ has emerged. The Painted Veil is an admirable companion piece to scores like Birth, The Luzhin Defence and Girl With a Pearl Earring, in that it contains the same inherent classicism found in all of those previous scores, while remaining fresh and exciting as a result of its interesting percussion work, compelling rhythmic ideas, and prominent but never distracting use of electronics. Performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, electric cellist Vincent Segal, and virtuoso pianist Lang Lang, The Painted Veil is a score which is rich, sweeping and vibrant, but which also has a reflective, intimate side, recognising the deeply personal nature of the fractured emotions the film examines, and never letting the broader canvas get in the way of what, in its broadest sense, is the story of a failing marriage.

As is often the case with Desplat scores, a lot of his music is built up from little rhythmic building blocks, which repeat in a pseudo-Michael Nyman minimalist mode, while the more elegant string lines glide softly over the top. The opening “The Painted Veil” is a perfect example of this style, presenting the main theme on a succession of solo instruments, gently washing across the orchestra from strings, to woodwinds, to his carefully selected ethnic soloists. Unlike a lot of other Desplat scores, however, the main theme is actually very prominent throughout: it appears buried under dissonances in the almost unbearably eerie duo “Death Convoy” and “The End of Love”, as a forlorn-sounding piano solo in “Promenade”, accompanied by metallic percussion in “Kitty’s Journey”, and with bombast and grandeur and Basil Poledouris-like brass phrasing in “Walter’s Mission”.

Despite being largely set in China, there is very little actual “Chinese” music in the score. Desplat does occasionally interpolate a subtle Oriental instrumental touch in the fabric of the music, through the very careful use of erhu violins and soft, muted Chinese woodwinds, but for the most part he is content merely to evoke the merest essence of China, not make it the driving force of the film. The Painted Veil is set in the Orient, but is not really about the Orient. It’s driving force is the emotional relationship between the lead characters, and could just have easily been set in the Amazon or West Africa, and lost none of its potency.

25-year old Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang plays a prominent part in the score. His effortlessly refined performances feature strongly in the formal, yet elegant “River Waltz” and its solo recapitulation in the second half of the album, before coming to a dramatic peak during the emotionally draining, musically powerful “Cholera”. He even performs the re-recording of Erik Satie’s classical work “Gnossiene No.1”, a beautifully understated piece which actually sits in very well with the overall tone and style of the rest of the score. Probably the best cue on the album is the recklessly flamboyant “The Water Wheel”, in which Lang Lang dances on his piano, fluttering up and down scales, while the orchestra around him injects all manner of wonderfully playful rhythmic devices and moments of thematic splendour. The finale is a lively sequence for solo percussion and pizzicato strings, vaguely reminiscent of parts of Trevor Jones’s score for Cleopatra, with a real sense of energy and movement.

The woodwind-based theme for Kitty is wistful, fragile, and just a little bit lonely, much like the character herself. While not a prominent aspect of the score, her music nevertheless underpins a lot of the emotional turmoil the score touches upon, re-appearing in “The Lovers”, with a little more energy and playing counterpoint to the main theme in “Kitty’s Journey”, and as a tragedy-laden duet between the woodwind section and Vincent Segal’s electric cello in “Morning Tears”, the latter of which owes a great debt to Wojciech Kilar.

Anyone who has ever enjoyed a Alexandre Desplat score will definitely find something to their liking in The Painted Veil. The overarching sense of classicism makes it closest in tone to scores like The Luzhin Defence than to Hostage or Firewall, but the increasingly recognizable Desplatian touches in orchestration, the beautiful piano performances by Lang Lang, the subtle Chinese elements, and the slightly restrained romantic sweep Desplat brings to his main themes makes it a score to savour. In a year where all the best dramatic music came out in December, The Painted Veil is certainly a major player in a crowded market.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Painted Veil (3:19)
  • Gnossienne No 1 (written by Erik Satie, performed by Lang Lang) (3:24)
  • Colony Club (2:09)
  • River Waltz (2:24)
  • Kitty’s Theme (3:08)
  • Death Convoy (2:50)
  • The Water Wheel (6:21)
  • The Lovers (1:27)
  • Promenade (2:06)
  • Kitty’s Journey (2:51)
  • The Deal (3:23)
  • Walter’s Mission (3:57)
  • The Convent (0:52)
  • River Waltz (Piano Solo) (2:27)
  • Morning Tears (1:52)
  • Cholera (4:23)
  • The End of Love (4:36)
  • The Funeral (0:53)
  • From Shanghai to London (2:03)

Running Time: 51 minutes 39 seconds

Deutsche Grammophon 477-6552 (2006)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The Prague Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat and Jean-Pascal Beintus. Featured musical soloists Lang Lang, Vincent Segal, Jeff Boudreaux, Joel Grare, Philippe Macé and Alexandre Desplat. Recorded and mixed by John Timperley. Edited by Peter Clarke. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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