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SK 94419

Artwork copyright (c) 2005 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2005 James Southall



Somewhat surprising score with some great moments


For such a high profile and commercial director, Ridley Scott is really rather eclectic when it comes to picking his projects.  There's an enormously wide range of material in his work, from one of the finest horror films (and still his best work, in my opinion) Alien to the somewhat low key drama Someone to Watch Over Me; from the cop thriller Black Rain to the historical epic 1492; from the dark and chilling science fiction of Bladerunner to the ambitious but flawed fantasy Legend.  His films since 2000 have continued the trend; he started with Gladiator, which started the new trend of epics (in name, at least) to have emerged from Hollywood in recent years, but then switched to the Hannibal Lecter sequel Hannibal.  The same year he released the despicable but technically flawless Black Hawk Down - and followed that up with the lighthearted Matchstick MenGladiator really propelled him towards the top of the A-list, but none of his films since then has been remotely as good - so what better way to recapture the glory of that film than by making something very similar!?  Which brings us to Kingdom of Heaven, his movie about the crusades.

For a long time, his choice of composer was just as eclectic as his choice of material - and I have always thought he had very little clue about the placement of music in a film, nor what style it needs to be.  His first four films this decade were all scored (according to the credits, at least) by Hans Zimmer and indeed Zimmer was originally announced for Kingdom of Heaven, but for whatever reason he departed the project to be replaced by his former Media Ventures cohort Harry Gregson-Williams, composer of choice for the director's brother Tony Scott.  Gregson-Williams has been growing in stature in recent years, attached to all sorts of high-profile projects, though Kingdom of Heaven is surely his biggest to date.

Many have called the film "Gladiator 2" (though a real Gladiator 2, improbable though it seems, is reportedly in development) because Scott's approach seems remarkably similar.  The trailers even feature saturated shots of a wheatfield and music video-style battle sequences, not exactly harming that impression (though Orlando Bloom, who looks about 12 and like he would be scared of going to the toilet in the dark, is hardly Russell Crowe).  Most assumed that the same would be true of the score, a view which was not in any way hampered by the change of composer; but those hoping for that will be disappointed, because fortunately Gregson-Williams has avoided the temptation to simply rehash Zimmer's massively popular score from a few years ago.  Indeed, the beautiful choral music which bookends the album is classily classical and a far way from what Zimmer would have written.  The presence of the "consort of viols", Fretwork, is another classy touch; a viol is an old instrument, similar to but slightly smaller than a cello, and not a spelling error, as some commentators suggested!  Nor is the sound heard in that opening track an electric cello, a rather odd confusion made disturbingly often in reviews of the score.  An electric cello does appear later on (it is mandatory in all scores by Media Ventures graduates), but is not as offensive as it might be in this sort of score, which as a whole manages to avoid awkward anachronisms rather well.

"Crusaders" is the only real action music of the opening few tracks, and far from sounding like a Gladiator rehash, it rather brings to mind the action music style employed by James Horner in the mid-1990s in scores like Apollo 13, and a debt of gratitude to Horner is clearly owed by the composer here.  It's riveting music though.  The more contemplative tone is maintained for some time, best exemplified by "Sibylla" (played in the film by Prunella Scales), a cue featuring some rather lovely, gentle orchestral music and subtle choral backing.  It's great to hear a composer who generally tends towards writing very big music working well with reduced instrumental forces.  There is a hint of source music about some of the cues, such as "To Jerusalem" and "Ibelin", which see Gregson-Williams working in music from the middle east - these sections work quite well, and are surprisingly not at odds with what surrounds them.

However - what Gregson-Williams does well in the first few tracks is create a real sense of setting the listener up for something far grander to come.  That payoff takes far too long to appear and this - especially with "Rise a Knight" promising far more dramatic music to come - is a frustration for the listener.  That fairly impressive (if disappointingly MV-like) piece should surely be used to introduce more vibrant music, but instead its immediate successor, the lengthy "The King", spends a long time with wailing middle eastern vocals - and nothing could be more likely to cause the film music fan to seek the fast forward button.  Hopefully - surely - the time will come when enough is enough.  

Finally, the much-anticipated action music arrives almost half an hour into the score with the impressive "The Battle of Kerak".  It remains slightly removed from the detail of the film, but this approach works well.  The Horner stylings are very much in evidence, but arguably this is more impressive music than Horner himself has been writing of late, with the choral shrieking working especially well.  Indeed, it works so well that one simply longs for more of the same, and in sporadic bursts, Gregson-Williams delivers during the second half of the album.   "Better Man" is a great concoction, a mixture of ethnic stylings, emotive choral music and thrilling orchestral action.  This is followed by the contrasting "Coronation", a gorgeous piece for orchestra, choir and wordless soprano which is amongst the album's most impressive pieces.  The heroic tones of "Wall Breached" may sound a bit like they might come from The Peacemaker, but are still quite stirring.  After another exciting cue, "The Pilgrim Road", Gregson-Williams rounds off the score with a return to the contemplative style which opened it.  "Saladin" is a wistful, attractive piece; and the rather liturgical choral piece "Path to Heaven" would have made a great finale to the score.  Unfortunately, the actual finale is the risible, vacuous "Light of Life", sung by Natascha Atlas, which should be struck from the record.

Kingdom of Heaven is quite an odd score.  At its best it is excellent and it largely avoids succumbing to the cliches many (including myself) would have expected it to; sadly it instead succumbs to other ones and so at its worst it is awful.  Still, I'm sure it will further cement its composer's growing reputation and bring a few more high-profile projects his way.  I don't understand the positive hyperbole which has surrounded the score, but it's still quite impressive.  Unfortunately, Scott got up to his usual tricks, ditching some of it in favour of retaining his temp-track in certain sections of the film, with tracks by Graeme Revell, Marco Beltrami and - irony of ironies - Jerry Goldsmith ending up in the film.

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  1. Burning the Past (2:42)
  2. Crusaders (1:39)
  3. Swordplay (2:03)
  4. A New World (4:21)
  5. To Jerusalem (1:37)
  6. Sibylla (1:50)
  7. Ibelin (2:14)
  8. Rise a Knight (2:42)
  9. The King (5:53)
  10. The Battle of Kerak (5:34)
  11. Terms (4:26)
  12. Better Man (3:23)
  13. Coronation (3:01)
  14. An Understanding (4:14)
  15. Wall Breached (3:41)
  16. The Pilgrim Road (4:07)
  17. Saladin (4:42)
  18. Path to Heaven (1:34)
  19. Light of Life (2:14)