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VICTORIA & ABDUL – Thomas Newman

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There has long been a cinematic fascination with the life of Queen Victoria, who reigned in the United Kingdom from 1837 until 1901; numerous actresses have portrayed her, both on the big and the small screen, but for contemporary audiences the quintessential Victoria is the one played by Dame Judi Dench. She first played the role in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, which examined the controversial relationship between the long-widowed queen and her Scottish equerry John Brown, which ended with Brown’s death in 1883. This new film, directed by Stephen Frears, is essentially a sequel to Mrs. Brown, and again stars Dench as the much loved monarch. It picks up Victoria’s story in 1887, and focuses on another unusual relationship Victoria developed with a different manservant; however, rather than being a Scottish gamekeeper, her new confidante was an Indian Muslim named Abdul Karim, played by Ali Fazal. Cue the scandals in the palaces of London and the halls of Westminster.

The score for Victoria & Abdul is by American composer Thomas Newman, who has been spending a lot of time scoring films with a British influence over the last few years, what with all the Marigold Hotels and Skyfalls and Spectres and Iron Ladies and Saving Mr. Banks from Mary Poppins. In many ways, Victoria & Abdul is a quintessential Thomas Newman quirky drama score, with all that implies. The familiar orchestral sound is present, with its warm strings, pretty pianos, frequent use of pizzicato, and lithe, sinewy woodwind writing. Newman’s regular musical collaborator George Doering brings his bag of tricks to the table once more, with various plucked and struck instruments ranging from guitars to the iconic ‘zinging’ dulcimer. This time, Newman augments the sound with a broad array of traditional Indian instrumental textures, including the sitar, tabla drums, the santur hammered dulcimer, and the harmonium creating the familiar drone of a raga.

Stylistically, Victoria & Abdul takes little compositional nuggets from a multitude of other Newman scores – not only are there clear allusions to the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotels and the aforementioned Saving Mr. Banks, but there are moments that recall the choral writing of Oscar & Lucinda, the cascading strings of The Shawshank Redemption and Meet Joe Black, the mischievous mayhem of something like Lemony Snicket, and much more besides. This can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on your point of view. On the one hand, it’s clearly a Thomas Newman score, and his highly personal stylistic fingerprints are all over it. Having a well-defined sound is, in my opinion, a good thing, as it defines you as an artist; no-one else sounds like him. On the other hand, anyone less enamored with his style than me could easily come away with a sense of having heard it all before, and of there being nothing new here. It’s true – there is nothing new here in terms of the canonical Thomas Newman sound, but when your sound is this good, why change it?

Thematically, the score is a little enigmatic, but there does appear to be a theme for both main title characters, as well as for a couple of other concepts related to their relationship. Victoria’s music, as one would expect, is refined and a little distant, with warm strings hiding behind a sheen of classicism. Cues like “Victoria Regina” present the theme with a sophisticated air, while the subsequent “The Wickedness of Children” presents her theme with a twinkle in its eye, accompanied by a dulcimer and a soft choir. Later, “Glassalt Shiel” presents a lovely variation for warm oboes, soft strings, harp, and a subtle choir, rising to a pretty, intimate finale that expresses the monarch’s love for her retreat at Balmoral. On the other hand, “Certified Insane” presents her theme via a series of stout string and horn chords which come across as sad, and a little bit disappointed, but which rise to a sweeping, emotional finish.

Abdul’s Theme, as one might expect, is steeped in Indian classical music, which eventually joins a western orchestra in an interesting fusion of styles, just as Abdul himself sticks out like a sore thumb at the court of St. James. Cues like “Agra Gaol” are classic Newman new age pieces which blend Indian influences with electronic pulses that are highly rhythmic and full of movement; this style of writing continues into subsequent pieces like “The Munshi Returns,” the playfully magical “Unveiled” with its prominent bansuri solo and raga drones, and the joyful “Peacock Throne,” which is full of exuberant strings.

Abdul’s relationship with Victoria clearly caused consternation, not only within the British aristocracy, but within Abdul himself, as he had to quickly learn the foreign customs and rituals associated with palace life. Abdul’s amazement upon his arrival in the heart of the Empire is conveyed by “Civilization,” which features the familiar Newman busy-ness, sprightly and jaunty, with bouncing strings, zinging dulcimers, and piano lines that capture the hustle and bustle of Victorian London. Later, cues like “Quenelle with Regency Sauce, Etc.” and “Jelly” are curious and a little bemused, showcasing Newman’s typical florid woodwind writing, mischievous pizzicato textures, waltzing strings, and playful metallic tinkles.

However, not everyone took kindly to Abdul’s presence at Victoria’s side, not least her son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, who felt that everything about Abdul – from his clothes to his accent to his skin color to his religion – was distasteful. This concept seems to be musically depicted by what I am calling the ‘Undermining Abdul’ motif, a curious combination of plucked basses, rhythmic pianos, snakelike oboe lines, tapped metallic percussion, and other assorted pizzicato interplay. Cues like “The Mango Is Off” and “Racialists” feature this sound, and come across as sneaky, curious, and a little irritated.

A few additional standalone pieces are also worthy of special note. The opening “Ceremonial Fanfare” is a classic piece of British pomp for brass, but which only lasts 17 seconds. “The Queen’s Gaze” is a stylized, highly classical pastiche for strings and harpsichord, formal and a little stern. “All the Riches of the Orient” is excellent, a series of gong clashes and regnal fanfares with complementary woodwinds. “Loch Muick” is a little dour and foreboding, with pianos, strings, and dulcimer zings that appear to convey a sense of loss related to Victoria’s memories of her beloved Albert; these ideas are carried over into “Knocked for Six,” which initially sounds bitter and damaged but allows itself a few moments to enjoy some Shawshank-style string cascades. “A Deputation” is a percussion-only piece for execution-style snare drum rolls and heavy, imposing timpani hits. “Sons of the Brave” is an ostentatious patriotic British Empire march, a medley of horns and clashing cymbals.

The score’s finale begins with the six-minute “The Empress of India,” which begins quietly and with a sense of trepidation, but gradually grows in intensity and emotion as Newman adds in layer upon layer of instrumental textures – synth drones, Indian woodwinds, harps, and dulcimers – to the orchestra. The whole thing slowly reaches a climax, including a subtly subdued version of Victoria’s theme, but the whole thing remains a little withdrawn. Clearly, something serious is happening. Thankfully, the final three cues are full of life: the title track, “Victoria & Abdul,” is gorgeous, a warm and pretty amalgamation of all the score’s most lyrical elements. Finally, both “Munshi Mania” and the conclusive “Gain the Ocean (End Title)” bring out all the Indian ethnic instruments for one last hurrah, in which layers of lively, energetic strings combine with flighty, fanciful flute lines and fast, intricate writing for sitar, sarangi, and tabla, that is quite superb.

Anyone who has enjoyed a Thomas Newman score over the past decade will find something to their liking in Victoria & Abdul. Whether it’s the sentimental string writing of something like Saving Mr. Banks, or the Indian influences of something like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or something else entirely, there is a positive takeaway for everyone. I personally love this side of Newman’s musical personality, and have always appreciated his penchant for unusual instrumental textures and sprightly, jagged rhythmic ideas. However, I can’t help shake the nagging feeling that there will be a section of the film music world who will quickly dismiss this as little more than a rehash of ideas from dozens of other scores. In purely academic terms, of course, they’re right. Newsflash: Thomas Newman writes score that sounds like Thomas Newman. But what Newman brings to the table is wholly unique to him, and for him to have maintained such a strong and identifiable voice in the increasingly homogenized and sanitized world of Hollywood film music is something that, in my opinion, should be celebrated, not criticized. Unlike the old queen herself, I was amused by Victoria & Abdul and – if the stars align – I could easily see it earning Newman his fifteenth Oscar nomination.

Buy the Victoria & Abdul soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Ceremonial Fanfare (0:17)
  • Agra Gaol (1:19)
  • Civilization! (1:49)
  • Victoria Regina (0:34)
  • Quenelle with Regency Sauce, Etc. (1:35)
  • The Queen’s Gaze (0:47)
  • Jelly (0:27)
  • The Wickedness of Children (1:33)
  • O’Sullivan’s March (traditional) (0:26)
  • Florence (1:32)
  • Loch Muick (1:16)
  • Glassalt Shiel (1:09)
  • The Munshi Returns (1:23)
  • Unveiled (0:50)
  • Peacock Throne (0:51)
  • The Mango Is Off (1:10)
  • All the Riches of the Orient (0:58)
  • Mutiny Lesson (1:06)
  • Knocked for Six (2:33)
  • Process Turn Bow Present (1:22)
  • The Only Way Is Down (1:13)
  • Racialists (1:03)
  • A Deputation (0:28)
  • The Emperor’s Egg (0:39)
  • Certified Insane (1:36)
  • Sons of the Brave (0:48)
  • Resign to My Face (2:04)
  • Banquet Hall of Eternity (2:18)
  • The Empress of India (6:10)
  • Victoria & Abdul (1:58)
  • Munshi Mania (2:11)
  • Gain the Ocean (End Title) (2:41)

Running Time: 46 minutes 20 seconds

Backlot Music (2017)

Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Thomas Newman.

  1. Kevin
    September 22, 2017 at 2:01 pm

    I think you’re underselling “The Empress of India” a bit. That cue is pretty obviously the emotional high point of the film and is a perfect example of Newman’s skill at gradually building up to a catharsis, like he did with the Glienicke Bridge scene in “Bridge of Spies.”

    Certainly it’s the best track in a pretty strong score overall. It’d be great if this gets him his 15th nomination but I don’t know if it would win.

  1. February 27, 2023 at 6:52 am

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