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THE GOLDEN COMPASS – Alexandre Desplat

December 7, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most successful, popular and well-respected children’s fantasy books in history, Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is a breathtaking, intelligent examination of religion, science and philosophy presented as a fantasy adventure tale, which features a young girl as its protagonist. New Line Cinema’s big-screen version of the first novel, The Golden Compass, is an ambitious attempt to condense Pullman’s expansive vision into box-office gold, and if all goes well will be the first installment of a three-film series. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards stars as Lyra Belacqua, a young girl in an alternate-reality England, whose best friend Roger is kidnapped by The Magisterium, a mysterious organization allied to the Church, led by the icily evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Teaming up with a group of ragtag stragglers known as the Gyptians, and Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen), the deposed king of the Panserbjørne (a race of intelligent armored polar bears), Lyra journeys to the frozen north of the Arctic to save her friend – but encounters a greater adventure than she could have ever imagined. The film has a stellar cast, including Daniel Craig as Lyra’s adventurer uncle Lord Asriel, Jim Carter and Tom Courtney as the leaders of the Gyptians, Eva Green as the witch queen Serafina Pekkala, and Sam Elliott as the heroic hot air balloon pilot Lee Scoresby, as well as Ian McShane, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi in smaller roles.

For the film’s score, director Chris Weitz turned to Alexandre Desplat, who is arguably the ‘hottest’ composer working in the film music industry in 2007. If ever a film demands a score of the highest order, The Golden Compass does, both to complement the striking on-screen visuals and comment on the intellectual and theological discussion points the film raises. Happily, Desplat has risen to the occasion magnificently, writing what it not only one of the best film scores of 2007, but one of the best of his career to date. But first, a word of caution; this score is NOT the rip-roaring fantasy adventure score one might have expected from the trailers, for although there are certainly a number of thematic high points and sequences of thunderous action, Desplat’s score is much, much more subtle and clever than that.

Written, as is Desplat’s usual way, for a large symphony orchestra, with added electronics and several unusual solo instruments, The Golden Compass takes the listener on a vivid musical journey of wonder and magic. As one might expect, given the film’s wintry setting, many of the orchestral touches throughout the score are quite ‘cold’ – not in an emotional sense, but in the way they evoke imagery of snow-capped mountains and vast icy wastes. Tibetan bowls, gamelan percussion, harps, chimes, and other ‘twinkly’ percussion elements combine with the orchestra to give the entire score a sense of fragility and clarity: it may be an odd description, but the music is so precisely balanced that, at times, one fears it might break. However, in other places, Desplat makes use of a great deal of exotic instrumentation from the Indian sub-continent and the Orient, especially in his use of exotic woodwinds, various shakers and tablas, and in the rhythmic construction of some of his percussion.

The delicate, waltz-like melody which first appears in “Letters from Bolvangar” is a thematic delight, while “Iorek Byrnison”, the noble King of the Panserbjørne has an angelic, almost-religious quality to his theme, with cooing choirs and a dignified horn refrain. Conversely, his usurping rival “Ragnar Sturlusson” has a much more threatening motif with minimalist, bassy piano chords and heavy string writing. “The Magisterium”, the shadowy organization kidnapping children at the behest of the church, gets its own sinister theme for rhythmic pianos and frosty strings, while the elusive “Dust” which forms such a major part of the film’s metaphysical narrative is characterized by subtle gongs and a whispery, other-worldly aspect. The moodily dramatic “Intercision” recapitulates the solemnly beautiful main theme heard in the opening cue before taking a dark, sinister turn.

And then there’s the action and adventure music, which is buoyant and sweeping, but also sometimes surprisingly brutal. Cues such as “Sky Ferry”, “Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure”, and the brief but brilliant opening of “Riding Iorek” are broad orchestral expressions of freedom and expanse, and are amongst the highlights of the album. “Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians” is a lively and exotic middle-eastern inflected theme featuring all manner of rattles and chimes, while pieces such as “Lyra Escapes”, “Samoyed Attack”, “Iorek’s Victory”, and especially “Ice Bear Combat” and “Battle With the Tartars” rage with dense, thrusting string figures, resonant piano chords and propulsive percussion. The first 15 seconds of “Ice Bear Combat” represents some of the best action film music composed in years.

Other musical moments of note include the vaguely Turkish bazaar-inspired energy of “Lyra, Roger and Billy”, the mesmerizing piano and harp duet in the aforementioned “Letters from Bolvangar”, and the deliciously dark crescendos of “Mrs. Coulter”, which eventually whip up into a frenzy – and reveal the true nature of the character. As is often the case with Desplat scores, his instrumental choices in the orchestration are often breathtakingly bold and interesting – the unusual introduction of what sounds like a sitar at the end of “Lyra Escapes”, the echoing, waspish muted brasses during “Riding Iorek”, and the vaguely Krull-like chorus and magnificently evil-sounding Inuit throat singers in “Samoyed Attack” and “Lord Asriel” being of special note.

Occasionally, and somewhat unexpectedly, The Golden Compass remind me of the most impressionistic parts of Maurice Jarre’s score for Dead Poets Society, especially in the way Desplat uses his electronics. Generally, the synth element is incorporated into the fabric of the score successfully, never calling undue attention to itself, but bolstering the orchestral writing well. There is often a subliminal electronic pulse underpinning the music, similar to the one Desplat used to clever effect in Birth back in 2004, which adds a level of sonic depth to the score.

Possibly the only misfire is Kate Bush’s song, “Lyra”, written especially for the film by the indescribably unique English vocalist. As befits the singer of such new-age classics as “Wuthering Heights” and “Babushka”, her song is a soft-focus, ethereal affair, but with a difficult, intangible melody and strangely insubstantial lyrics. Its peculiar, dreamlike, echoic synth backing makes it sound like something from a shampoo commercial or a chocolate confection marketed at romantically-challenged middle-aged women. I didn’t care for it. New Line Cinema is apparently pushing very hard for an Oscar nomination for the song, which I actually hope doesn’t happen. I can think of at least ten other songs more worthy of nomination off the top of my head.

With each new score I hear from Alexandre Desplat, the more I am convinced that his voice will be among the most prominent and successful in Hollywood for years to come. Nevertheless, I am sure that The Golden Compass will disappoint some listeners, because it is not the same kind of score as The Lord of the Rings, or Willow, as some had hoped. However, for me, the reason it succeeds so entirely is because it doesn’t sound like every other fantasy score out there. Desplat has his style and his own spin on these things, which is wholly commendable. I personally feel that it is his most accomplished score of 2007, and one of the finest scores of the year, by any composer.

Rating: *****

Track Listing:

  • The Golden Compass (2:22)
  • Sky Ferry (2:44)
  • Letters from Bolvangar (2:33)
  • Lyra, Roger and Billy (1:29)
  • Mrs. Coulter (5:20)
  • Lyra Escapes (3:44)
  • The Magisterium (1:58)
  • Dust (1:10)
  • Serafina Pekkala (1:50)
  • Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure (1:20)
  • Iorek Byrnison (5:28)
  • Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians (2:17)
  • The Golden Monkey (2:04)
  • Riding Iorek (4:38)
  • Samoyed Attack (1:21)
  • Lord Asriel (2:10)
  • Ragnar Sturlusson (6:18)
  • Ice Bear Combat (2:15)
  • Iorek’s Victory (1:26)
  • The Ice Bridge (1:33)
  • Rescuing the Children (2:18)
  • Intercision (2:47)
  • Mother (3:35)
  • Battle With the Tartars (4:31)
  • Epilogue (3:33)
  • Lyra (written and performed by Kate Bush) (3:19)

Running Time: 74 minutes 03 seconds

New Line Records NLR 10977459 (2007)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat and Conrad Pope. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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