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Masterpiece of thoughtful reflection

Music composed by

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Performed by
conducted by
Electric cello


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Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Warner Bros.; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall

The Painted Veil is one of those movies which gets a brilliant critical reception, but which nobody actually goes to see.  It is a sumptuous-looking piece based on Somerset Maugham's novel about an English couple (played by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton) seeking answers to their problems in 1920s China.  It's directed by John Curran, who turned to Alexandre Desplat for the music.  Desplat has risen extremely quickly from relative obscurity to being on the Hollywood A-list, and seems to have developed an uncanny knack for finding high-quality films to score (OK, so we'll gloss over Firewall, but the last couple of years have seen Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Queen).  It is really quite satisfying that a composer with such a personal - and often subtle - musical voice can rise so high, and Desplat is certainly one of the most exciting composers around.  One can easily imagine him rising to the very top of that aforementioned A-list at some point.  The Painted Veil is simply the latest in a string of top-quality scores - and may just be the best one so far.  

The first thing one notes when buying the album is that it's released on Deutsche Grammophon, rare indeed for a film score.  The second thing one notes is the reason for this - Desplat has featured Chinese piano prodigy Lang Lang (who's so good, they named him twice) in his music.  Of course, there has been a trend in recent times (led by Messrs Williams and Horner) to feature prominent solo artists and, while frankly a lot of the time the music is so simple that any competent performer could play it and most people wouldn't notice the difference, there is certainly a sense of prestige and class when someone of Lang's calibre appears.  While Desplat's solos for the artist are not among the more taxing he will play, he graces them with a studied elegance that elevates the music still further.

Being set in China, perhaps some listeners will be expecting the bog-standard, cliche-ridden Hollywood film composer attempt at "Chinese" music.  Don't.  Mercifully Desplat avoids the pitfalls of doing so.  At last, a composer who seems to realise that because the film is set in China doesn't mean the music has to be Chinese - the viewer can already see China, for God's sake, he doesn't need the music to remind him - and so Desplat writes the music which is dramatically best for the film, by examining the characters and their complex relationship rather than just dancing around the photography.  It's now been over 20 years since John Barry's infamous comment about Out of Africa (he had to fight long and hard to get Sydney Pollack to agree not to use tribal percussion and chanting and the like) - "The movie's set in Africa, Sydney, but it isn't about Africa" - and I had begun to think that film composers had forgotten how to actually score this type of thing.  This is not to say that the location is completely ignored by Desplat's music - he hints at it through very subtle orchestration nuances and his harmonic choices - and that's more than enough to transport the listener into the East without the need for an erhu and some wailing female vocalist.

The album begins, naturally enough, with the main theme - piano dreamily scurrying around the slowly-building piece, later accompanied by beautiful fluttering flutes (for the hint of the Chinese effect).  It's an exceptional theme, one blessed with the epic quality one might expect for a film like this, also full of distant - perhaps unsatisfied - romantic longing.  After this comes the only piece of non-Desplat on the album, the brief "Gnossienne No 1" by  Erik Satie - a lovely piece for piano which fits in so perfectly with Desplat's score, it is hard sometimes to remember that the piece isn't actually by him.

Another new theme is introduced in "Colony Club", this time accompanied by the kind of subtle, pulsating electronic beat Desplat used to such great effect in Birth; in this cue, the piano moves from background to foreground (and back again) effortlessly, offering the binding effect which holds everything together.  One of the album's centrepieces is then revealed, the exceptional "River Waltz", which brilliantly combines romance with a pervading sense of sadness.  It shows Desplat as a film composer right at the top of the game.  The sense of sadness is expanded upon in "Kitty's Theme", a tragic piece conveying emptiness, loneliness, a lack of fulfilment.  The reverse of this comes in "The Water Wheel", perhaps the score's highlight - the floaty atmosphere which opens it (helped once again by the airy piano) gradually builds into a colourful, descriptive piece, forever moving, forever changing.  Towards its conclusion, Desplat ups the tempo, introduces some almost Crouching Tiger-like percussion; another great twist.

The most overtly romantic material in the score is presented in "The Lovers", featuring an exquisite violin solo - but seemingly focusing more on the hope of romance rather than the fact of it.  Much of the score is subtle and perhaps even introverted, but there is no shortage of extrovertness in "Walter's Mission", a fascinating piece full of local flavor and unbridled excitement.  Interestingly, this piece is followed by the score's happiest, the brief "The Convent", a splendid little portrait of bliss.  One of the score's most interesting features is its use of electric cello, heard prominently in "Morning Tears" and "Cholera" (and less prominently in other cues) - Desplat uses the instrument in a way I haven't heard it used in a film score before, creating an uneasy, unnatural sound.  I must admit that my first reaction upon seeing an electric cello soloist listed prominently on the album cover was not a positive one - but the composer's innovative use of the instrument is excellent.  Indeed, the last-mentioned cue, "Cholera", is quite brilliant - a bleak (overpoweringly so), desperate piece of music.

More tragedy follows before the end of the disc, with "The End of Love" being a passionate but tortured piece, and "The Funeral" being as torrid as you might imagine.  The Painted Veil is one of 2006's rare treats, music which is so well-developed both emotionally and intellectually that it leaves most others trailing well behind.  Desplat is a brilliant composer, one whose emergence is enough to restore some of the faith lost through countless missed opportunities and the general removal of breathing space in film scores.  


  1. The Painted Veil (3:18)
  2. Gnossienne No 1 (Satie) (3:22)
  3. Colony Club (2:08)
  4. River Waltz (2:23)
  5. Kitty's Theme (3:07)
  6. Death Convoy (2:49)
  7. The Water Wheel (6:20)
  8. The Lovers (1:26)
  9. Promenade (2:04)
  10. Kitty's Journey (2:49)
  11. The Deal (3:22)
  12. Walter's Mission (3:55)
  13. The Convent (:50)
  14. River Waltz (piano) (2:26)
  15. Morning Tears (1:51)
  16. Cholera (4:22)
  17. The End of Love (4:34)
  18. The Funeral (:51)
  19. From Shanghai to London (2:03)