Latest reviews of new albums:
The Light Between Oceans
  • Composed by Alexandre Desplat
  • Lakeshore Records / 2016 / 62m

Based on the acclaimed novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is about a family who live in a lighthouse off the coast of Australia, just after the First World War.  After a shipwreck, a young girl is washed ashore with her dead father and the couple who live at the lighthouse adopt her.  Some years later they discover that the girl’s mother is still alive and the story follows the consequences for all of them.  Starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, Derek Cianfrance’s film is highly-anticipated.

Cianfrance had wanted Alexandre Desplat to score each of his last two films but scheduling problems didn’t permit it; this time he got his man and waxes lyrical about their collaboration in the album’s liner notes, reporting that he immersed himself in the composer’s music during production.  I think a very large number of people will soon be waxing lyrical about this collaboration because it’s inspired Desplat to write one of the best scores of a career which contains no shortage of wonderful efforts. While he has been stretching himself across numerous genres and his class as a film composer has produced fine results in each of them, there’s no doubt that Alexandre Desplat’s natural home is (much like Thomas Newman’s) in serious, grown-up drama and The Light Between Oceans sits comfortably with scores like Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Painted Veil and The Tree of Life.

Alexandre Desplat

Alexandre Desplat

One of the score’s great assets is its outrageously beautiful main theme, introduced right away in “Letters” – solo piano (which features heavily) initially carrying the melody accompanied by shimmering strings and electronic bass before it is taken over by very warm winds, the complex harmonies coming together to create something really rather wonderful.  It’s great whenever it appears: “Isabel”, the first piece written, is pure piano and written to be performed by Vikander’s character on-screen.  It has a rawness to its beauty that is just scintillating.

“Tom” introduces a secondary theme, this one much darker.  The strings carry the melody (a waltz) but just as important is what’s happening around them, winds dancing, electronics buzzing.  “At First Sight” is dreamy, haunting, fragments of the main theme appearing but melody isn’t really the point – it’s atmosphere and it just floats, calm and beautiful.  The classical elegance which seeps from every pore of “The Dinghy” is absolutely pure Desplat: the piano again, mesmeric here, the strings so full of drama.  Then after “Isabel”, “In God’s Hands” is a piece of real contrasts: weighty dramatic uncertainty interspersed with moments of innocent charm and a fresh, simple melody which sees the composer come close to emulating John Barry’s genius for emotional directness without schmaltz (sadly its appearance is only very fleeting).

Darkness reigns at the start of “The Rattle”, basses and then cellos undulating away together before being joined by bassoon and oboe.  It’s a piece full of tragedy.  The theme from “Tom” reappears in “To Resent”, much slower this time, painful feeling very evident.  In “Janus” it takes on another form, here reduced down to another raw piano solo, but a very different one from “Isabel”: now the emotion is tentative, the melody seeming to take on little steps before falling back.  It’s done so well.

“A Wonderful Father” is an absolute powerhouse of a cue.  The writing for winds is phenomenal: each group is introduced in turn while the others continue below, then the strings join, the simple melodic phrase gradually rising through the register until the powerful climax which then reduces down and only the pedal note remains.  It’s so emotionally complex despite being built from apparently sparse raw materials.  A new theme is then introduced in “Lucy – Grace”, piano again, full of warmth and beauty and (once more) classical elegance in its first half, then the innocence seems to blossom into something more mature and serious in the second.  It’s another piece so carefully constructed, with so much to say in the space of three and a half minutes.  “Path of Light” has a starring role for a prototypical Desplat melody, the piano here rising and rising before just falling back with an unexpected conclusion to the musical phrase, resolution finally coming when the strings join for the conclusion.

“The Return” brings a bit of that John Barry style back again, sadness conveyed so well, with such beauty.  In the last thirty seconds, violence erupts – not in-your-face, it’s psychological.  It’s arresting, powerful music.  In “Hannah Roennfeldt” the sadness reaches new levels, the “Janus” theme delicately plotting its way around strings that seem intent on providing a slight discomfort.  Then a certain resolve seems to assert itself during the course of “Still Your Husband”, a slow-moving piece but yet another knockout punch in a score which contains so many.  “To Forgive” offers the “Tom” theme in yet another guise, in fact almost disguise, floating effortlessly away.

In “Each Day We Spent Together”, love (not the romantic kind) is at the fore; so touching.  Then “To Be Loved” brings things up to an emotional fever pitch, all the feelings which have dominated the score coming together, a hint of resolution emerging as the piece progresses.  Finally all the complex tension is allowed to explode into warmth in the end title piece which is absolutely charming and so beautiful, the main theme now glistening with sunshine.

It was 2000 when I first became familiar with Alexandre Desplat when I heard The Luzhin Defence.  It marked him as a composer of real talent and I hoped he would get the big break that he so clearly deserved.  The score that really made a wider audience sit up and take notice was in 2004, Birth, which was followed up by a succession of others.  I’ve been singing his praises throughout this time and think he’s the finest film composer to emerge in at least a generation.  And I’m not sure he’s ever written anything better than The Light Between Oceans.  It is an emotionally raw work which charts such a carefully-plotted dramatic path, all the while featuring wonderful melodies including a main theme that’s as beautiful as they come.  If you’re not a fan of Desplat based on his past works then this is certainly not the score that will change your mind: it’s like a pure distillation of the aspect of his music that I love so much.  It’s a serious,  emotionally challenging work: the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness and only at the very end does it become outwardly uplifting.  It’s the journey to get there that I take so much from: it’s just mesmerising, magical, magnificent.  It’s a Desplatsterpiece.

Rating: ***** | |

Tags: , ,

  1. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Monday 29 August, 2016 at 01:04

    Wow James! You hav’nt enthused to such a degree about a score and composer in ages…and your description of DESPLAT’S music is so powerful that I was able to audiolise the shimmer of strings and the emotive piano playing without knowing the various melody lines. After your mainly dismal reaction to BELTRAMI’S ‘Ben-Hur’ (the movie opens in South Africa on September 16th) it’s great seeing a 5* rating for this score.

  2. […] […]

  3. Morgan Joylighter (Reply) on Friday 2 September, 2016 at 15:29

    Finally! Desplat sounds like Desplat again. It’s been so long…