Composer: Thomas Newman
Label: Backlot Music
The very epitome of a tea and crumpets big screen accompaniment to the Great British Bake Off, Victoria & Abdul sweeps nuance aside in favour of homeliness and platitudes. If you were expecting an in-depth take on the ailing Queen Victoria’s real-life friendship with loyal Indian servant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) you’ll be disappointed. Anyone expecting to see Judi Dench on predictably magnificent and imperious form as the crotchety monarch will be most entertained, although there’s little that’s news in this follow-up to 1997s acclaimed Mrs Brown.
Nevertheless, the movie has reliable prestige oozing out of its pores from Danny Cohen’s cinematography to Consolata Boyle’s sumptuous costumes. It also gets a real injection of class courtesy of erstwhile composer Thomas Newman, here temporarily replacing Frears’ regular collaborator Alexandre Desplat who presumably was busy working on Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water.
Interestingly, Newman’s score completes an unofficial quartet of Eastern-inspired musical works that have spanned the two Exotic Marigold Hotel movies and He Named Me Malala, the documentary about activist Malala Yousafzai. Rarely a composer keen to impinge on the visual action, Newman often instead favours a rich tapestry of tonality and harmony that speaks of the narrative’s themes without ever aggressively drawing attention to them, as the classic likes of American Beauty attest.
Victoria & Abdul is a quintessential example of Newman’s approach although this time galvanised somewhat by the Anglo/Indian crossover necessitated by the story’s events. Interweaving Royal pomp and circumstance with intoxicating flavours revolving around the sitar and tabla drum, it’s a sensitively deployed and at times beautiful soundtrack, a reminder that when it comes to cathartic beauty this composers has few equals (an extraordinary career spanning the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, Little Women and Finding Nemo is testament to that).
As varied, intricate and busy as the score’s musical tapestry is, one might have hoped for more distinctive musical building blocks to thread it all together. It is true that Newman is rarely one to call attention to his themes, often leaving the more robust statements to the closing moments of his score. But after the arresting opening moments the score seems happy to dwell in the overly familiar aural textures as heard in the aforementioned Marigold Hotel moves, with relatively little to mark it out. It’s pleasant and highly accomplished music, if not especially memorable.
Nevertheless, Newman’s somewhat introverted approach does work well in context, steering around the somewhat hammy supporting performances and instead working hard to ground the audience in the deeply felt spiritual connection between Queen Victoria and her ‘munshi’. Not a classic Newman score then but one that demonstrates his idiosyncratic approach with just enough regularity to make it enjoyable.