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Wonderful fantasy score brings a disappointing year for new film music to a spectacular close

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NLR 10977459

Album cover copyright (c) 2007 New Line Cinema; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall

An intelligent, intense trilogy of books, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is that rare beast - a fantasy series that even I like.  Because of the author's outspoken views (rather than because these people have read the books), and his self-styled "anti-C.S. Lewis" tag, lots of members of the religious right got all in a tizz over them, but there's a strong message at the heart of the novels, and that - as much as the elaborate world depicted therein and the compelling adventures of the young girl, Lyra, at the centre of the story - is what really attracted me to them.  Filmed versions of them were inevitable, but it was slightly surprising to see New Line Cinema grant the adaptation of the first book - The Golden Compass - a Lord of the Rings-style budget; then slightly disconcerting that the director would be the bloke who made American Pie; then more disconcerting still when all the stories started emerging about the soul of the book being ripped out to make the film palatable to more extreme Americans; so the fact that the film which finally emerged is as engaging and entertaining as it is was another surprise.  It moves along at a great pace, never drags, and apart from the surprising decision to chop the end of the film off and bring the story to a close slightly earlier than the book, is extremely fine.  Inevitably - since I found this to be the most immersive experience I'd ever had with a fantasy film - nobody else seems to like it very much, and it appears doubtful that the other two films will actually be made after all.

Anyway, one of the most mouthwatering aspects of the film production was rising film music star Alexandre Desplat being hired to write the score.  He seemed to be an inspired choice from the start - his emergence as a composer with a distinctive voice, a keen dramatic sense and the ability to write music of real class has been a real breath of fresh air in frankly desperate times for the craft of film composition, and the fact that a composer of his abilities could find himself attached to a $200m blockbuster gives renewed hope that better times might be around the corner.  Delightfully, it would appear that director Chris Weitz did not require him to water down any of his instincts - and as a result he has produced the finest blockbuster score since Howard Shore downed tools on Lord of the Rings, and arguably beyond.

I frequently refer to score albums which take the listener on a "musical journey" - sadly these references are found almost exclusively when I speak about older scores since the vast majority of today's film music is surface-level "reactionary" stuff, rather than anything of particular depth.  The Golden Compass is the archetypal "musical journey" - Desplat seeds an idea, lets it grow later on, before it flourishes at the end.  In today's world where instant gratification is demanded and usually received, it is very hard for a film composer to get away with it; but for once, this is not a score for a blockbuster where every track seems to be underscoring the film's pivotal moment - it's one which builds, grows, develops, springs forth organically, requires more than a cursory glance to appreciate its hidden depths, which continue to reveal themselves more and more as the listener is drawn further inside the music - and the story - with each new listen to the album.  You won't find everything this album has to offer on the first, second or third listen - if my experience is anything to go by, you still won't have found it on the fiftieth.  Younger film music fans have probably never known anything other than scores which start big, continue big and end big - where the thrills are obvious, the music direct and constructed under the principle that the more instruments playing at any one time, the better - and hence I can easily imagine many of them being taken aback at this and dismissing it as not being the kind of thing they want - but without wanting to sound enormously patronising or arrogant (far too late for that, I hear you cry) I do hope this score might be responsible for engaging a few listeners and encouraging them to discover the film music of days gone by that miserable farts like me go on about - when this sort of depth was so frequently present in film music, rather than being so uncommon that it provokes a reaction quite so startling as The Golden Compass did in me.

There are numerous themes here, interwoven, interconnected, combining terrifically to produce the whole.  Be warned - this isn't a "state and restate" score - there's no populist concert arrangements of themes - the listener is expected to make an effort before everything can be revealed.  But, as my headmaster K.G. Howard always used to say, you can only get out of things what you're willing to put in - and if you do put in that effort, you quickly find yourself swimming deep inside this colourful, rich, fascinating fantasy world.  One of Desplat's great strengths, demonstrated consistently through each of his film scores, is his orchestration - there is a wonderful clarity, a rare precision, and he does it spectacularly here - everything is so crisp, so clear, recorded with such deliberate clarity - constrast this with the muddy recording favoured for Lord of the Rings which made Howard Shore's own exquisite orchestrations get lost behind a thick fog.

The album opens with a theme which binds the whole score together - a short motif, really, representing Dust (which is what the trilogy is really about - Dust, not dust, though) - mysterious, fluid, strangely compelling - and the relatively brief piece goes on to quote short extracts from several of the themes which will later grow, culminating in a couple of bars of Lyra's theme.  "Sky Ferry" is more heraldic, as the score's main theme is given a fine, up-tempo arrangement which sandwiches the first appearance of the score's darkest theme, that for Mrs Coulter.  "Letters from Bolvanger" presents a childlike lullaby full of tragedy - the theme for the abducted children, whose rescue is what ultimately the filmmakers made their adaptation centre around.  In complete contrast is the happy, playful "Lyra, Roger and Billy" which represents the children when they were still full of innocence - still children - and is the first cue heard in the film after the prologue.  A delightful scherzo, it provides light relief and is a fine example of film music album production - the score isn't completely rearranged, but the careful placement of a few cues out of order helps it flow much better.

"Mrs Coulter" offers the music associated with the villain (or is she?) played by Nicole Kidman, who has never looked more beautiful.  There's an elegance to the theme from the warm strings and piano - but Desplat quickly, skilfully turns things on their head and makes the theme darker, ominous, suspicious - more excellent scoring.  Mid-cue, there's just a brief excerpt from the children's theme introduced in the previous track before a sudden orchestral explosion brings the score's darkest moment so far, ushering in a shadowy, nasty version of Coulter's theme.  "Lyra Escapes", the first action music, is thrilling - the use of brass recalls Bernard Herrmann, as does the cellular structure.  Part of Lyra's escape involves meeting the Gyptians, a gypsy-like people, and their theme gets its first full airing - it has an exotic flavour to it, sounding distinctly Turkish in origin, with a catchy melody line always underpinning it (it took me ages to work out what the melody reminded me of - and, in an amusingly unlikely way, it's Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall".  "The Magisterium" (the Church-like body at the centre of the controversy surrounding the books and film) get some appropriately stately music before the Dust theme returns in the brief cue bearing its name.  Another new theme is introduced in "Serafina Pekkala", for the witch played by the alluring Eva Green, though its use here is rather subtle, not providing much of a hint of the heroic way it will come to be used later on.  "Lee Scoresby's Airship Adventure" is one of the obvious "compilation cues", despite being very brief - that heroic presentation of Pekkala's theme gets its first showing, and it's a thrilling, breathless moment - the score's grandest.

"Iorek Byrnison" is one of the score's longer pieces, and a fascinating musical depiction of the unlikely relationship between the story's heroine and an enormous armoured bear - their first encounter begins with distant, nervous music contrasting the slow, deliberate pace of the low-end strings for the bear with small flutterings for winds for Lyra.  Eventually, as they warm to each other, ethereal choral music is heard.  "Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians" reprises the theme associated with his people heard previously in "Lyra Escapes", though this time it is even more florid and exotic - with finally a driving, propulsive quality as the brass join together for a forceful presentation.  "The Golden Monkey" features some dissonant, unsettling music for brass and percussion, as well as another ominous version of Coulter's theme.  "Riding Iorek" introduces swirling, spooky female choir, but by and large is the most sorrowful music in the score, with tragic hues used to colour the generally subtle, low-key scoring.  Throat singing underpins the transition to "Samoyed Attack", a furious piece of action music again showcasing Desplat's orchestration - even in this enormously busy piece, the clarity of writing is fully on display.

"Lord Asriel" (played by Daniel Craig, who dominates the trailer but is barely-seen in the film) begins with a stately arrangement of the score's main theme, before turning into more action music with Desplat writing in the style of John Williams's music for this sort of thing.  "Ragnar Sturlusson" - the king of the bears - is not the nicest of chaps, and is treated accordingly by the music, with an almost avant garde first section of the piece, building to a soaring presentation of the main theme for brass.  The romantic-sounding theme for Lyra and Iorek's relationship - hinted at earlier - is fully-developed at the end of the piece.  "Ice Bear Combat" offers more action, once more relentlessly exciting, probably the score's most thrilling cue; it's furious material, and leads into the wonderfully heroic "Iorek's Victory", with the big bear's theme blaring forth heraldically.  Needless to say, it's not long before things take a turn for the worse again, and "The Ice Bridge" is a suspenseful, somewhat solemn piece which is quite different from the thrilling music which preceded it, but no less impressive.

"Rescuing the Children" does not begin as the kind of heroic piece the title implies - instead, it is full of sadness, almost resignation, at the plight they've been through and the friends they have lost; however, their pleasant theme is presented in the middle of the piece and a lighter air reintroduced.  "Intercision" (in the book a truly horrific thing - but in the one place where the film perhaps fails, it's never quite given the importance it should be) is a series of variations on the Dust theme, at one point accompanied by a throbbing electric bass in an unexpected, but effective passage.  The cue ends with a terribly strained, almost desperate section, recalling Elliot Goldenthal's treatment of similar ideas, in particular in Titus.  "Mother" offers light music with dark undertones, gentle celeste and piano figures floating over violin music tinged with sadness and sorrow.  "Battle with the Tartars", the film's finale, continues the action style developed earlier in the score; the highlight is probably the wonderfully-soaring appearance of Pekkala's theme for the pivotal moment.

The score concludes with an "Epilogue", a grand, rousing way of wrapping things off, concluding with a glorious version of Lyra's theme.  Sadly, that's not it, because there's still "Lyra" from the enigmatic Kate Bush, a not-completely-awful song but completely out-of-keeping with the score Desplat has worked so very hard to produce.  However, I guess it guarantees higher album sales.  The Golden Compass is a score good enough to bring renewed hope: even if the two sequels don't actually get made, surely Desplat has done enough here to warrant being hired for similar things in future; and what a treat that would be for us all.  This is not a score which will appeal to everyone, but I suspect it will pick up a band of devotees, and for my money is the greatest score for a fantasy film for twenty years.


  1. The Golden Compass (2:22)
  2. Sky Ferry (2:44)
  3. Letters from Bolvanger (2:33)
  4. Lyra, Roger and Billy (1:29)
  5. Mrs Coulter (5:20)
  6. Lyra Escapes (3:44)
  7. The Magisterium (1:58)
  8. Dust (1:10)
  9. Serafina Pekkala (1:50)
  10. Lee Scoresby's Airship Adventure (1:20)
  11. Iorek Byrnison (5:28)
  12. Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians (2:17)
  13. The Golden Monkey (2:04)
  14. Riding Iorek (4:38)
  15. Samoyed Attack (1:21)
  16. Lord Asriel (2:10)
  17. Ragnar Sturlusson (6:18)
  18. Ice Bear Combat (2:15)
  19. Iorek's Victory (1:26)
  20. The Ice Bridge (1:33)
  21. Rescuing the Children (2:18)
  22. Intercision (2:47)
  23. Mother (3:35)
  24. Battle with the Tartars (4:31)
  25. Epilogue (3:33)
  26. Lyra Kate Bush (3:19)