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SWEPT FROM THE SEA
Beautiful romantic score is a masterclass from Barry
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1997 TriStar Pictures, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2008 James Southall.
A slight but handsome film based on Joseph Conrad's short story Amy Foster, Swept from the Sea sees a Russian who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck turn up in a Cornish town and fall in love with a local servant. It's decent enough but the only reason I watched it is probably the only reason anyone who visits this website watched it, which is that it was scored by the legendary John Barry. At the time Barry was still scoring films relatively frequently (this was his fourth in just over two years) but little did anyone know that he would virtually give up afterwards, having written three more scores and then none since 2001 (and I don't suppose he will score any more now). It's a real shame because he is so talented and still had so much to offer, but such is life.
It is probably fair to say that there is a certain degree of similarity between the majority of his post-Dances with Wolves scores*, and the romantic tragedy here is an extension of ideas from The Scarlet Letter, Chaplin and others but as usual the themes are unique and there is an individual mood for the score which distinguishes it from the others. Many film composers have attempted to write in this way over the years, with lush orchestral music which always attempts to flesh out the romance in a scene above all else (whether that is sexual romance, tragic romance, melancholic romance or whatever) but none has ever succeeded quite like Barry. It is true that occasionally he has been guilty of simply finding a theme which works and then repeating it through the score, but in the better ones it is the mood he has kept consistent and the tunes have developed and varied - and such is the case here.
Barry takes his inspiration from the sea, with the orchestration sweeping in and out like the waves, the tone darkening and brightening subtly but frequently, and the music constantly suggesting a timeless and constant yearning. The opening cue introduces two main themes, the romantic main theme and the Slavic-sounding Yanko's theme. A third follows immediately in "To America", this one absolutely full of romantic longing and beauty; it segues into a very different, more dramatic, take on Yanko's theme. Finally, the most obviously ocean-inspired theme in "The Storm Came", swirling around and around, cautiously enticing with its powerful undertones but retaining that distinct beauty that John Barry probably couldn't avoid no matter how hard he tried (and thank God he didn't often try very hard).
"Sea of Death" introduces what is referred to by the director rather unpromisingly as the "death theme", and even here it's beauty that is the driving force - the music turns darker and darker, but as the distant synth chorus joins in it is just impossible not to feel the deeply human aspect Barry is trying to emphasise. This core of five themes introduced in the opening four cues goes on to dominate the score, but even though some of them aren't developed all that much it is easily enough material from which to fashion a 60-minute album which never feels too long.
This is helped by the occasional set-piece - the summery, awkwardly-titled "Yanko Asks Amy Out" is simply delightful, and the source piece "Yanko's Dance" breaks things up but doesn't feel out of place - and this is so expertly-crafted it is often just a joy to behold. Barry's music isn't for everyone but his better scores go about their business with such a singular purpose his place as one of the film music masters will never be in doubt. Because it is for such a little-known film, this score is not often spoken about, but it should be - the album plays like a very carefully-considered tone poem to the sea, and listening from start to end it so envelops the listener it is simply enormously impressive. The disc concludes with a fine song ("To Love and Be Loved") based on the main theme, Tim Rice's lyrics beautifully sung by Corina Brouder, rounding off an album which should be in all Barry fans' collections.
*This statement is unlikely to win this year's award for understatement**.