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Victoria & Abdul
  • Composed by Thomas Newman
  • Back Lot / 2017 / 46m

Exploring the relationship between the ageing Queen Victoria and her Indian manservant Abdul Karim, Victoria & Abdul is a follow-up of sorts to 1997’s Mrs Brown, which also starred Judi Dench as the Queen.  Stephen Frears’s film has not been without controversy – its rose-tinted view of the British Empire has unsurprisingly not gone down well in some quarters – but the performances by Dench and Ali Fazal have been widely praised.

Most of Frears’s films used to be scored by George Fenton before Alexandre Desplat took over the reigns and scored five of the director’s last seven films.  This time round he’s turned to a new collaborator, the great Thomas Newman, who seems to be scoring quite a few quintessentially “British” subjects these days, from Margaret Thatcher to James Bond – and it’s the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel scores that may well have landed him this gig, because they’re not just British, they’re Indian too.

Thomas Newman

While there are elements of those scores clearly influenced here, the sounds are woven in to something that sounds much more regal overall, while never departing even slightly from Newman’s signature sound.  After the brief “Ceremonial Fanfare” which opens the album, “Agora Gaol” is absolutely typical Newman “world music” territory – there’s no particular concession to the period, it’s George Doering and co having fun with sitars, tabla drums, and so on – and I find it quite irresistible.  But actually that Indian sound is only occasionally present through the album.

There’s a theme for Victoria – introduced in “Victoria Regina” – which is attractive but doesn’t quite reveal the extent of that beauty until the swooning “Glassalt Shiel”.  But as is often the case with Newman, it’s not really about themes, but more about presenting a series of little vignettes and weaving them together into a colourful and vibrant patchwork quilt of a score.  So, early on the album we have the delightfully comic “Quenelle with Regency Sauce, etc.” – the Angels in America-style choral majesty of “The Queen’s Gaze” – the bittersweet beauty of “Loch Muick” – the playful exuberance of “The Munshi Returns”.  There’s so much going on.

We’re well and truly in Marigold Hotel territory back on the subcontinent in the delightful “The Peacock Throne”, followed by the delightfully-titled “The Mango is Off” (which is a bit more dramatic than you’d expect) and then the pomp and circumstance of “All the Riches of the Orient”.  Such is the nature of the score – lots of little ideas, flitting around from one to another, each coming together very well.  But all the fun and games come to a bit of an abrupt halt as the score takes a darker turn in “Mutiny Lesson” and then particularly in the excellent “Knocked for Six”, as quite intense sadness briefly takes hold.  There’s a brief step back into jollier territory in “Process Turn Bow Present” (four words which make sense individually but don’t seem to when put in sequence like that) with a martial exuberance which reminds me of Scent of a Woman, but then “Racialists” is as solemn as you would expect.

This darker sound does pervade much of the second half of the album – “Certified Insane” is the pick of the cues, intensely dramatic and tragic, Newman playing it straight here and not holding back with the emotion.  A real highlight is the delicate, beautiful “Banquet Hall of Eternity”, the trademark strings shimmering away but absolutely tinged with sadness.  By far the score’s longest cue is the six-minute “Empress of India” – you look at the track name and its length and before you hear it assume you’re going to listen to something really grand, so it comes as quite a surprise that it’s so subdued.  But the key thing is, emotionally it’s not subdued at all – the expression of anguish is so acute it comes as a bit of a hammer blow.  In its closing stages, as the melody from “Certified Insane” reappears, all of a sudden the composer completely lets go and we reach a crescendo of sadness.

That track feels like it ought to be the finale but in fact there are three left, and the warmth slowly returns in “Victoria & Abdul”, a piece of ravishing beauty, with the composer’s amazing penchant for writing beautifully for oboe fully on display (along with an unexpected return of the choir).  Then comes the sunny, uplifting “Munshi Mania” and then the end title piece, “Gain the Ocean”, with the composer giving one more taste of his unique take on the subcontinent.  You won’t have failed to note just how many other Newman scores I’ve referred to in the paragraphs above, and much like his previous score Passengers, Victoria & Abdul does feel like the composer is treading over very familiar ground.  But also much like that score, it’s very good – and after over a hundred film and tv projects over a career spanning 30+ years, it’s hardly surprising that this most distinctive of film composers might be repeating himself a bit.  The fact is that he’s one of the best there is and this score is elegant, colourful and rich and will appeal to any of his fans.

Vibrant, colourful Anglo/Indian drama | |

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