Home > Reviews > Best Scores of 2017 – United Kingdom, Part I

Best Scores of 2017 – United Kingdom, Part I

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

The first installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from my home country, the United Kingdom. There has been a wealth of riches from all four parts of the country – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – and this first set of reviews encompasses a rich and varied set of scores from Oscar winning favorites and talented newcomers, dramas, documentaries, comedies, and even a groundbreaking animation. There will be more to come from the UK later!

THE BLACK PRINCE – George Kallis

The Black Prince is a British historical drama film directed by Kavi Raz, starring Satinder Sartaaj, Amanda Root, and Jason Flemyng. Set in the UK and India in the 1840s, it tells the story of Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and the Punjab, and the relationship he develops with Queen Victoria, as he attempts to reconcile within himself the two cultures of his Indian birth and British education while attempting to regain his throne. It’s similar, conceptually, to director Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul, which was scored by Thomas Newman, albeit with a much less prominent international profile.

The score for The Black Prince is by Cypriot composer George Kallis, who has been enjoying an outstanding 2017: this is one of his three excellent scores this year (the others being the children’s adventure Albion: The Enchanted Stallion, and the Russian fantasy film The Last Knight). Recorded in Hungary with a full symphony orchestra, The Black Prince is a rich, thematic orchestral drama score in the grandest traditions. The music is a perfect personification of the duality of Duleep himself, whereby the European classical music speaks to his British Colonial upbringing, but the frequent use of Punjabi ethnic instruments such as the sarangi, as well as the vocals by lead actor Satinder Sartaj himself, speaks to his deeply ingrained Indian heritage.

The score’s main theme receives several superb statements, including in the “Opening Titles” and in the powerful “The Sword of the Maharajah,” but receives its fullest statement in the superb “The Painting,” a piece which speaks to Duleep’s nobility and privileged status as a member of the aristocracy, but also the deep emotional conflict he feels within himself; the oboe solo combined with the Indian vocals that emerges half way through is especially resonant. Elsewhere, the most prominent secondary theme concerns the romantic relationship between Dileep and his first wife, and is a wonderful piece of lush Golden Age Hollywood melodrama, with a sumptuous solo violin at its core. Cues like “I Know Your Destiny” with its mellifluous woodwinds, “First Meeting,” “Marriage Proposal,” and the powerful “Rest In Peace Bamba” showcase Kallis’s talents in this regard.

A further theme representing Duleep’s longing for his homeland, and his memories of his childhood, appears in the melancholy “Mother,” a somber piece for piano and sarangi that strikes an appropriately reflective chord. Other cues of note include the more urgent “Holland Park” which uses the sarangi to add a touch of regional color to the brooding, dramatic strings; the lavish sweep of “Back to England,” the deeply moving “The Bird,” and the intense “Assassination Attempt,” which uses a rich violin solo as part of an action and suspense sequence.

This is a tremendous work which further establishes George Kallis’s credentials as one of the most exciting and talented young composers to emerge in the film music world in quite some time, and cements his position as a genuine contender for Composer of the Year in 2017. The score is available on CD and as a digital download from producer Stephan Eicke’s German boutique label Caldera, and gets an unequivocal recommendation.

Track Listing: 1. Opening Titles (3:19), 2. First Trip to India (2:21), 3. The Painting (3:20), 4. Holland Park (1:59), 5. Mother (3:06), 6. Arur Singh Captured (2:45), 7. No Passage to Punjab (1:24), 8. Back to England (2:17), 9. I Know Your Destiny (2:08), 10. The Prophecy (2:35), 11. The Bird (1:49), 12. Dr. Logan Passes (2:32), 13. First Meeting (3:14), 14. Treason! (2:35), 15. I Am Not a Prince (2:10), 16. Letters Intercepted (1:58), 17. Marriage Proposal (1:27), 18. Travelling to Paris (0:42), 19. Assassination Attempt (2:09), 20. Rest in Peace Bamba (1:46), 21. My Childhood (1:44), 22. The Sword of the Maharaja (2:39), 23. Death and Coronation (3:07), 24. Audio Commentary by George Kallis (4:39) BONUS. Caldera Records, C6020, 56 minutes 33 seconds.


BREATHE – Nitin Sawhney

Breathe is a drama film directed by Andy Serkis, starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy. It tells the true life story of Robin Cavendish, a young and adventurous Englishman who in 1958 contracts polio and is paralyzed from the neck down. Despite being confined to a bed and given only months to live, Robin contacts his friend Professor Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) and embarks on a series of pioneering medical breakthroughs designed to help improve the quality of life the disabled.

The score for Breathe is by Anglo-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney, a contemporary of Hans Zimmer who has worked on several of his scores, as well as on his own works such as Enslaved – Odyssey to the West (2010) and Human Planet (2011). The score for Breathe is lovely, lush and elegant, filled with sparkling instrumental solos and an unexpectedly upbeat and whimsical attitude. Cues like the opening trio comprising “Robin’s Drive,” “Cricket Match,” and “Country Drive and Ballroom” have an old-fashioned English sound about them, with especially lovely writing for solo piano and darting, flighty woodwinds; there’s also a sultry variation for saxophone in the classically romantic “Travelling to Kenya”.

Cavendish’s illness and subsequent physical decline is captured by a number of darker textures that dominate the rest of the first half of album – cues like “Doesn’t Want to See the Baby” are especially laden with tragedy – but these are counterbalanced by some unusually effective moments of comedy, like the soft shoe shuffle of “Moving the Bed,” the jazzy second half of “Hospital Escape,” or the regional color of “Travelling to Spain”. However, for me, the standout element of the score is the gorgeous, John Barry-esque romantic theme that emerges in “Arrival Home,” a testament to the unstoppable force of love that allows Cavendish and his long-suffering wife to overcome their many difficulties. The sweeping, desperately beautiful statement of the theme in “Telling the Doctor It’s Time” is the most poignant and emotional highlight of the score.

Some of the sonics in the album are a little peculiar – at times it sounds as though Sawhney intentionally undermines his live string section by burying it underneath a bank of sampled synths à la Randy Edelman circa 1994, which makes me wonder whether he ran out of money because this surely couldn’t have been an artistic creative choice. However, other than this one small caveat, the score for Breathe is generally lovely, a fitting testament to the life and work of one of the most important disability activists in medical history, and to the love that sustained him through it all.

Track Listing: 1. Robin’s Drive (1:08), 2. Cricket Match (1:13), 3. Country Drive and Ballroom (1:21), 4. Travelling to Kenya (1:40), 5. Getting Ill (1:27), 6. Meeting Baby Jonathan (0:51), 7. Doesn’t Want To See The Baby (1:50), 8. Dreaming He Is Fine (0:47), 9. Buying the House (1:43), 10. Moving the Bed (1:06), 11. Hospital Escape (1:19), 12. Arrival Home (1:29), 13. Connecting With Jonathan (1:40), 14. Cleaning Ladies Outside (1:27), 15. The Last Dream (1:25), 16. Garden Party (1:50), 17. Travelling to Spain (2:06), 18. Picnic by the Road (0:56), 19. Funding the Chairs (0:31), 20. Wheelchair Parade (1:48), 21. Arriving at the German Hospital (0:57), 22. Leaving the German Hospital (0:25), 23. German Convention Speech (1:51), 24. After First Bleed (1:03), 25. Goodbye-ee (0:56), 26. My Love My Life (1:52), 27. Telling the Doctor It’s Time (2:50), 28. Flashback Montage (1:41), 29. Credits (1:42). Varese Sarabande 302-067-528-8, 40 minutes 54 seconds.


CHURCHILL – Lorne Balfe

Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film Churchill is historical drama starring Brian Cox as the great British wartime leader. It’s not a full-on biopic per se, but is instead a more detailed look at a specific period in Churchill’s life: the hours leading up to the D-Day Normandy Landings in 1944, which effectively initiated the end of World War II. The film co-stars Miranda Richardson as Churchill’s wife Clementine, John Slattery as US President Eisenhower, and James Purefoy as King George VI, and has an original score by Scottish composer Lorne Balfe.

Churchill is one of five major scores by Balfe in 2017 (the others being The Lego Batman Movie, the TV series Genius, Ghost in the Shell, and Geostorm), and for me this is the best of the lot. It’s a dramatic, emotional score that augments a symphony orchestra with unusual, keening vocal performances and highlighted solo performances for solo cello and solo piano, which are themselves often augmented by elongated string chords, and low rumbling synth percussion. The tone is appropriately reserved and somber, considering the nature of the film and the seriousness of the setting, but Balfe somehow finds a way to inject a faint sense of hope into the music. It s perfect portrayal of Churchill at that time – a beleaguered figure weighted down with the burden of war and the expectations of a tired nation, but who also never faltered in his duty, or his steadfast belief in his ultimate victory.

Several cues stand out from the crowd. The opening cue, “The Beach,” introduces the vocal idea, a haunting, faraway-sounding cry that is plaintive and sorrowful, but nevertheless has a hint of optimism; it’s difficult to describe it, as it has a unique timbre and tone, but it is very effective, and the way Balfe returns to it in the conclusive cue, “Pursose” allows it to cast a hypnotic spell over the whole score. Determined rolling pianos and strident string figures dominate cues like “Meeting with Month,” all business and noble sense of purpose. The subsequent “An Unsociable Hour” brings the churning strings more to the forefront, forceful and lively one minute, strong and aggressive the next. The second half of the lengthy “Meeting with the King” has a sense of dignified destiny, while the subtly heroic and stirring music under “The Speech” gives Churchill’s powerful oration a palpable emotional boost.

Despite having heard more than 20 Lorne Balfe scores over the last few years, not including his work writing additional music for Hans Zimmer that dates back to 2000, Churchill is the first score of his that really really impressed me. The way he managed to encapsulate all the conflicting emotions and actions inherent in Churchill’s persona, as well as the additional weight of capturing Churchill at that specific pivotal moment in world history, was striking, and the fact that did it while remaining mostly true to the thematic, tonal, and fully-orchestral idiom makes this a score worth investigating.

Track Listing: 1. The Beach (4:09), 2. Meeting with Month (2:11), 3. An Unsociable Hour (2:33), 4. Eisenhower Will Listen (2:37), 5. Back to London (2:32), 6. Journey to the Camp (2:06), 7. Meeting with the King (5:28), 8. Let It Rain (3:40), 9. The Ships Are Gathering (2:32), 10. We Could All Help (3:45), 11. A Cottage by the Sea (2:40), 12. The Speech (5:48), 13. Recovery (5:20), 14. Purpose (3:12). Filmtrax, 48 minutes 40 seconds.



Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy is a British documentary feature film directed by Ashley Gething, marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who was killed in a car accident in Paris in August 1997. The documentary was one of two documentaries commissioned by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, and features interviews with the two princes, as well as with several of Diana’s friends and family such as Sir Elton John and her brother, Charles Spencer. The film focuses mostly on their memories of Diana as a person, and on Diana’s legacy, most notably the numerous causes she was involved with such as AIDS, landmines, homelessness, and cancer.

The score for Diana is by Anglo-Portuguese composer Miguel d’Oliveira, who over the last several years has cemented his reputation as one of the UK’s most respected composers, specializing in television and theatrical documentaries, often involving the royal family – he previously worked with the same director on the scores for two documentaries about Queen Elizabeth II. In writing the score d’Oliveira intentionally avoided offering any sort of personal commentary on Diana’s life and instead wrote a score which he wanted to be “adequately elegant, kind, and reasonably sophisticated,” but which avoided any sweepingly emotional statements of overt schmaltziness. The ensemble he chose comprises mainly woodwinds, piano, celeste, and a small string section, but was performed entirely by d’Oliveira on sophisticated samples, such was the film’s tight post-production schedule and limited budget.

Capturing the life of Diana without memorializing or overly-sentimentalizing her personality was a tricky tightrope for d’Oliveira to walk, but he succeeded admirably. Much of the score has a light, approachable, occasionally gently magical tone, as apparent in the opening cue “Heart in the Right Place.” Pizzicato string writing and fluttery flute lines give cues like “Fashion,” “Someone Special,” and “Granny Diana” a playful edge, while at times the woodwind writing has the lovely pastoral feel that James Horner brought to scores like The Spitfire Grill, among others. The only real concessions to the drama and tragedy of the events surrounding Diana’s death come in cues such as “Not Sure Anymore” and “A Sea of Tears,” which use more bass-heavy woodwinds to tell the story.

Overall, Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy is a warm and appropriate musical tribute to one of the most beloved icons of the 20th century, which can be described with adjectives also applicable to the woman herself: warm, hopeful, approachable, sprinkled with a touch of princess magic, but occasionally just a little sad. The score was originally only available as a personal promo produced by the composer for awards purposes, but it has since become available as a digital download on iTunes, SoundCloud, and several other digital platforms,

Track Listing: 1. Heart in the Right Place (2:02), 2. Confused Feelings (1:48), 3. Fashion (1:06), 4. Someone Special (1:07), 5. Trying to Fit In (2:15), 6. Not Sure Anymore (2:04), 7. A Sea of Tears (2:39), 8. Granny Diana (1:47), 9. Sense of Humour (1:52), 10. Someone Different (2:07), 11. Picking Yourself Up (2:10), 12. Playful Mummy (2:18), 13. Caring Without Prejudice (1:31), 14. Princess of the Poets (1:49). Promo, 26 minutes 35 seconds.


HAMPSTEAD – Stephen Warbeck

Hampstead is a British comedy drama directed by Joel Hopkins, starring Brendan Gleeson and Diane Keaton. It tells of the unlikely friendship that develops between an eccentric American widow living in London, and a man living rough on Hampstead Heath, who are brought together when the local authority threatens to destroy his home to make way for a new property development. It’s a gentle, slightly eccentric film about latter-day romance underpinned by a serious point about homelessness, which was met with generally positive reviews when it opened in cinemas in Britain in June 2017.

The score for Hampstead is by Stephen Warbeck, who is making a welcome semi-return to the film music world this year, albeit a long way from the A-List. It’s astonishing to realize that almost 20 years have passed since Warbeck was an unexpected Oscar-winner for Shakespeare in Love, and that it’s now been more than a decade since he scored a film with any sort of significant international profile – the last one probably being Proof from 2005. Despite this, Hampstead is a lovely reminder of what a charming composer Warbeck can be; it’s a light, tuneful, approachable orchestral score that balances comedy and whimsy with the right amount of drama and pathos.

The main theme, “Hampstead,” is warm, summery, sunny piece of writing for pianos and guitars augmented by strings, allowing the listener to fully immerse themselves in the idealized London that Keaton’s character inhabits. The theme for Gleeson’s character is first heard in “House on the Heath,” a earthy cue for a similar-sounding ensemble, but which places a little more emphasis on folk music and strummed guitar chords. These two musical ideas dominate the score and provide the bulk of its thematic content; subsequent cues like “The Petition,” the Thomas Newman-esque “The Campaign,” “Fishing for Dinner,” and the conclusive pair “New Beginning” and “The Hut on the Boat” are notably entertaining.

One or two cues are different enough to be worth mentioning. “Japanese Restaurant” is an unusual piece of pseudo-source music that uses a shamisen, ethnic woodwinds, and light chimes to create an atmospheric mood, while “The Photographs” is a little more downbeat and reflective, re-orchestrating the main theme for a soft piano and tremolo strings. However, for the most part, Hampstead is an engaging low-key comedy-drama score of the type that composers such as George Fenton and Patrick Doyle often write, and if that sort of music appeals to you, then this one will too. It’s airy attitude, warm approachability, pleasant tunefulness, and sense of charming elegance is very entertaining indeed.

Track Listing: 1. Hampstead (4:54), 2. House on the Heath (1:41), 3. The Petition (2:22), 4. Japanese Restaurant (3:34), 5. The Cemetery (1:26), 6. The Campaign (2:01), 7. Rolling Dice (performed by Mathilda Homer & Sam Mitchell) (2:57), 8. To the Museum (2:15), 9. The Photographs (3:39), 10. Judgment (1:33), 11. Fishing for Dinner (1:40), 12. Leaving the Hut (1:31), 13. Leaving Hampstead (1:26), 14. Waltz No. 9 in A Flat, Op.69 No.1 (written by Frédéric Chopin) (3:19), 15. Fishing Trip (0:54), 16. New Beginning (3:09), 17. The Hut on the Boat (2:07). Varese Sarabande, 40 minutes 36 seconds.


LOVING VINCENT – Clint Mansell

Loving Vincent is a groundbreaking animated film directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. Narrative-wise, the film is a very simple story in which Theo Van Gogh, the brother of the acclaimed artist Vincent Van Gogh, looks back on his brother’s life a year after he died. The astonishing aspect of the film is the fact that every one of the nearly 65,000 frames in the film was rendered by hand with oil paints – no computers – following a style intended to mimic that of the master artist himself. More than 125 painters worked for years to bring the film to life, with the resultant film looking exactly as it would if Van Gogh had drawn it personally. The film features the voices of Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, John Sessions, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Aidan Turner, and has an original score by Clint Mansell.

It’s amazing to see just how much Mansell’s music has changed over the years; from his origins as a British pop music pioneer, through his early electronic work for Darren Aronofsky on films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream, he has now embraced contemporary classical orchestral minimalism, and he’s truly excellent at it. His career arc is not dissimilar to that of Danny Elfman (without the blockbuster super hero period in the middle), and Mansell’s current work has the same sort of feeling that Elfman brought to scores like Standard Operating Procedure or The Unknown Known – the classical form of a Philip Glass or a Michael Nyman or a Wojciech Kilar, filtered through a more modernistic lens.

Each of the cues is named after a famous Van Gogh masterpiece, and most of them are standalone pieces with little to no thematic connective tissue; instead, the score is underpinned by a hypnotic, restless movement, repeated chords from the pianos and undulating string figures that carry the listener forward through each sequence. The instrumental ensemble is fairly similar across the board – solo violin, solo piano, harp, harpsichord, string wash, light metallic percussion – but several cues stand out. I’m especially fond of the light, magical chorus that emerges towards the end of the first cue, “The Night Café,” as well as the more oppressive and authoritative string ostinatos that underpin “The Yellow House.”

Later, “Portrait of Armand Roulin” subtly references traditional French music by adding the whine of an accordion into the mix, while “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano” is built around a gorgeous waltz. A beautiful, moodily evocative theme emerges during the pastoral “Five Sunflowers in a Vase,” featuring the subtle hum of voices. This contrasts with the slightly prickly dissonance of cues like “Wheatfield with Crows” and “Thatched Roofs in Chaponval,” which use modulated synth drones, electronic effects, and anguished orchestral textures to heighten the sense of Van Gogh’s worsening mental problems. Even the conclusive cover version of Don McLean’s ‘Vincent’ in “Starry Starry Night” by the smoky-voiced Lianne La Havas is perfectly judged.

Overall, this is a quite superb score, richly orchestrated and beautifully rendered with care and precision, a perfect match for the strikingly detailed and painstakingly rendered animation style. It will surely appeal to anyone who appreciates the minimalist orchestral stylings of the composers I previously mentioned, as well as Mansell’s recent acclaimed scores such as last year’s High-Rise.

Track Listing: 1. The Night Café (4:07), 2. The Yellow House (4:45), 3. At Eternity’s Gate (3:40), 4. Portrait of Armand Roulin (2:58), 5. Marguerite Gachet at the Piano (2:30), 6. Still Life With Glass of Absinthe & A Carafe (3:12), 7. The Painter On His Way to Work On the Road to Tarascon (3:48), 8. Five Sunflowers in a Vase (3:17), 9. Wheatfield With Crows (2:50), 10. Thatched Roofs in Chaponval (4:01), 11. Blossoming Chestnut Trees (4:54), 12. The Sower With Setting Sun (4:47), 13. Starry Night Over the Rhone (1:17), 14. Starry Starry Night (performed by Lianne La Havas) (4:43). Milan, 50 minutes 53 seconds.

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