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ANGEL – Philippe Rombi

February 16, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Angel, also known as The Real Life of Angel Deverell, is a French-English romantic comedy-drama based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor (the writer, not the actress), and is the second English-language feature from the acclaimed French filmmaker François Ozon. Romola Garai stars as the eponymous Angel, a fiery and passionate aspiring writer in late-Victorian England, whose determination, intelligence, and sense of imagination and magic allows her to escape from the dreary tenement where she lived, and fulfill her literary dreams. The film charts Angel’s life, from birth to death, with a sense of satire and a biting wit, and features an outstanding supporting cast, including Sam Neill, Charlotte Rampling, Lucy Russell and Simon Woods. They are accompanied by a truly marvelous score by Ozon’s regular musical collaborator, Philippe Rombi.

When I reviewed Rombi’s score for the thriller Swimming Pool back in 2003, I remarked that I hoped he would be the next French composer to follow in the footsteps of Jarre and Delerue and take Hollywood by storm; as it turns out, Alexandre Desplat and not Rombi was the composer to do that, but despite remaining largely undiscovered by the mainstream, Rombi’s work has been nothing if not consistently excellent, and Angel may very well the 39-year-old’s best score yet.

Unlike many modern scores these days, Angel is a score with themes. And what glorious ones! Rombi is very much an old-fashioned composer, and that is most definitely meant as a compliment in this respect. His music, which on this occasion is written for a full orchestra with emphasis on strings and piano, is lush, buoyant, and almost unashamedly romantic. Director Ozon, when outlining his musical ideas to Rombi, was especially inspired by the scores composer Frank Skinner wrote for the melodramas of Douglas Sirk in the 1940s and 50s – titles like Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, and All That Heaven Allows – and wished to pay homage to them. In response, Rombi channeled the spirit not only of Skinner, but several other Golden Age greats, resulting in a score which is brazenly emotionally manipulative, but also has a knowing nod-and-a-wink to the audience, as if aware that this type of enormous melodrama is slightly (and intentionally) overwhelming for the film it accompanies. It is also, however, extraordinarily beautiful.

The opening cue, “The Real Life of Angel Deverell”, is actually quite turbulent, with a sweeping orchestral theme underpinned by slightly tumultuous-sounding rolls, giving it a real sense of weight and drama. The “Overture”, however, quickly changes the mood with a sparkling, whimsical variation on the main theme with prancing string glissandi and a cooing choir accompaniment, giving it distinctly Golden Age-style lyricism. The best, however, is saved for the secondary theme – the Paradise theme – which sounds for all the world like it could be a variation on Max Steiner’s theme from Now Voyager, and first appears in the second half of the “Overture” to magnificent effect. Its piano-led concert performance in the following cue, is utterly magnificent; graceful, lyrical, romantic, passionate, yet bittersweet, all at the same time. By the time it eventually gives way to a sweeping statement by the full orchestra, you’re in raptures.

As the score works through its first half, one finds oneself picking out highlights at every turn – the luscious cello performance of the main melody half way through “Paradise Theme”, which gives way to a searching solo violin, and eventually the entire orchestra; the subtle inclusion of a choir during “Angel’s Theme”; the kinetic, defiantly upbeat “Success”, with its sleigh bells and bubbly pizzicati; the wonderful orchestral and choral crescendos and rhapsodic pianos during “Crowning Moment”; the tear-jerking solo viola in “A Gift from Paradise”; the irrepressibly sunny “Honeymoon”; the list goes on and on. One of the score’s many strengths is the way Rombi continually finds new ways to present his themes, with new lead instruments, slight variations and interesting settings, which keeps the album fresh and alive without it ever losing its thematic consistency or coherence.

During the score’s second half things occasionally take a slightly downbeat and melancholy turn, especially in cues such as “Jealousy”, “Mother’s Death”, “The Portrait”, “The War”, “Alone in Paradise” and “Esme’s Death”. Again, it’s interesting how, in this darker period of Angel’s life, Rombi maintains the thematic core of the score, but significantly alters the mood through the addition of more somber keys, imperceptibly slower tempos, and a heavier reliance on quiet woodwinds over strings. The music is still beautiful, but in a different way, and the score is a richer listening experience because of it.

The eleven-minute finale, comprising “Angel’s Death”, “The Dreamed Life of Angel Deverell” and a recapitulation of “Angel’s Theme”, sends things off with a flourish, building from passages featuring more tender woodwind writing, eventually breaking out into a series a spellbinding performances of all the main themes which somehow manage to reach even greater emotional heights than those which preceded them. Listening to music as outstanding as this, one is reminded just why we are all film music fans in the first place.

Angel is, without question, one of the finest film scores composed in all of 2007. It will appeal to Golden Age enthusiasts who lament the loss of the thematic beauty and emotional weight composers like Skinner and Steiner gave their music; it will also surely appeal to younger fans whose exposure to Golden Age music may be limited (either due to lack of opportunity, or experience, or who prefer to listen to music with better recording quality), but who are still interested in the music of the era. Whatever the case may be, Angel ticks all the boxes in terms of beauty, performance, thematic strength and sheer, unadulterated passion. Hollywood has already welcomed one enormously talented Frenchman into their inner circle in the shape of Alexandre Desplat; it is surely now time for them to extend Philippe Rombi the same courtesy.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • The Real Life of Angel Deverell (2:27)
  • Overture (2:56)
  • Inspiration (2:43)
  • Paradise Theme (4:22)
  • Angel’s Theme (2:22)
  • The Publisher (3:46)
  • London (0:39)
  • Norley (1:18)
  • Success (1:19)
  • Crowning Moment (1:07)
  • A Gift from Paradise (4:24)
  • Nora (1:12)
  • Visit to Esme (1:04)
  • Jealousy (2:38)
  • Mother’s Death (1:58)
  • Marry Me (1:35)
  • The Portrait/Honeymoon (1:53)
  • Together in Paradise (2:55)
  • The War (3:23)
  • Alone in Paradise (4:12)
  • In the Name of Love (3:04)
  • Esme’s Death (2:04)
  • Angelica (3:55)
  • Silky Boy (1:10)
  • Angel’s Death (4:56)
  • The Dreamed Life of Angel Deverell (2:16)
  • Angel’s Theme (3:19)

Running Time: 70 minutes 48 seconds

Colosseum CST 8116-2 (2007)

Music composed and conducted by Philippe Rombi. Orchestrations by Philippe Rombi and Jeff Atmajian. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Album produced by Philippe Rombi.

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