It is no secret that Alexandre Desplat is a composer whose music has split the film score community in two. On the one hand, there are those who claim that his music is emotionless, cold, and distant. Such a crowd will typically agree that his method is technically proficient and music very intricate, but argue that it is missing depth and emotion. On the other hand there are those who love almost every score Desplat has written. This crowd will praise Desplat for the sometimes overflowing emotion they see in his music and hold the opposite opinion on just about every issue thrown out by the opposing crowd. Proponents of both sides find it incomprehensible to hold the opposing viewpoint on his music. Those who love his music cannot understand why there are those who don’t, and those who find his music less-than-satisfactory cannot understand why other people praise his music so much. Arguments rage on and on, as they most likely will for the rest of Desplat’s career. In the middle of the commotion, and when Desplat has firmly cemented himself as a top Hollywood composer, comes perhaps his most controversial score to date, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1.
When it was announced that Desplat would be composing the film score for the seventh Harry Potter film, the film score community erupted. There was unbridled excitement on the one hand and endless disappointment on the other hand. Many were unsettled when it was revealed that John Williams would not be returning to score the final two films. To them his themes were dear and his music unrivaled in the illustrious franchise. While there were strikingly differing attitudes towards the announcement, none can deny that for both sides there was a palpable sense of anticipation. For all there was hope that Desplat would deliver the goods, though both sides had slightly different definitions of ‘goods’. Now that the score to the first film has arrived, the controversy has not in any way lessened but rather been further fueled. The problem here is that, in all the commotion, if one objectively listens to the score on its own it is revealed to be a very strong effort from Desplat. Even if it is not quite 5-star material, Desplat has composed an intricately thematic score that has a healthy amount of stirring pathos and rousing action.
Things get started very quickly with “Obliviate” and “Snape to Malfoy Manner”, both painting a thrilling picture of fiery darkness. ‘Obliviate’ introduces us to a sad yet noble theme that seems to be associated with Hermione Granger. Emma Watson came out on top as far as acting goes and her character comes out on top as the clear winner here, doing her best to remain strong in the face of such unceasing and cruel opposition that makes her do things she previously would never have done and endure things that nobody should ever have to go through. Hers is a theme filled with tragedy, yet tinged with nobility and hope. This theme is reprised throughout the score, most notably in ‘Ron Leaves’, and ‘Hermione’s Parents’. ‘Snape to Malfoy Manner’ introduces us to the more sinister side of the story. A dark theme for the villains is introduced here and capped with a brilliant use of the strings taking one note and sliding down a half-step, painting a perfect picture of malevolence (reprised in Death Eaters). Playtime is long gone and dark times lay ahead…
There are many other themes and motifs present in the score, including some suitably pompous material for the Ministry of Magic (tracks 10-13), the sequence which chronicles the trio’s attempt to retrieve one of the horcruxes in rather amusing fashion. There’s some slightly off-kilter material for the Lovegood family as well. This music suits the characters quite well, as it plays to their rather unpredictable and absurd demeanor. There is also a love theme for Harry and Ginny played on piano in ‘Harry and Ginny’. Whether this theme registers as a suitable love theme or not depends on the listener. I thought that it fit with the overall tone of the film, yet was not developed enough to truly qualify as a winner (here’s hoping for this in the score for the next film). A highlight of the score is definitely the action material, as is typical for these Desplat scores. Those who were left breathless after the action music from “The Golden Compass” will feel the same sensation when listening to the awesome ‘Sky Battle’. His rhythmic style is stamped all over the score, particularly in his action material. Racing strings and fast horn triplets combined with stunning brass blasts make this the most thrilling music since, well, ‘The Golden Compass’.
Unfortunately, things seem to lag quite a bit in places and particularly the portion from tracks 15-18. ‘Bathilda Bagshot’ is a cue in which very little happens. It’s all very unpleasant and atonal, which was probably the point but makes for a rather dull listening experience on album. Much of the album is also rather slow. While the action material is thrilling, there are not even 10 minutes of it on this overly generous 73-minute album. The majority of the score is slow-moving, with relatively few moments of dramatic outburst or intensity. Some of these cues prove to be winners (the excellent ‘Ron Leaves’) while others may induce yawns (‘Hermione’s Parents’). Also disappointing are the tracks which end the album, save ‘Farewell to Dobby’. ‘Rescuing Hermione’ is exciting only in short bursts (a requirement of the scene). ‘Farewell to Dobby’ is suitably sad and mournful, and yet hopeful at the same time. Unfortunately, the album ends on a rather anonymous, unexciting note. ‘The Elder Wand’ is a typical ‘sequel-coming’ cliffhanging cue. It is a bit of atmospheric writing which, while getting speedier towards the end, never gets the blood pumping in anticipation for the next score and film like it should.
The controversy concerning Desplat and his music rages on, and it is easy to see why this score is just fuel to the fire. There are many who will see it very cold and distant. I disagree. While Desplat’s scores have in the past rubbed me the wrong way for this very reason, this one seems to be bridging the gap. Such powerhouses as ‘Ron Leaves’ and ‘Farewell to Dobby’ may bring a tear to the eye. Many will say that the score is too slow, mediocre, or not a fantasy score. While at times I agree, I have found this score to be an improvement for Desplat. It actually sounds like a fantasy score. And while it is very slow (sometimes a bit too much) it is never mediocre. Undoubtedly, many will say that the score is not a ‘Harry Potter’ score. Indeed, Hedwig’s theme is only referenced in a few tracks in a heavily veiled and truncated manner. No other previous themes from the Potter universe are even alluded to, which is disheartening but understandable. I must say, though, that I love the reference to Hedwig’s theme in “Sky Battle’ as the owl performs his final mighty act of heroism to protect his owner.
A big deal has been made concerning the fact that Desplat never references Williams’ foundational themes (outside of those veiled references to Hedwig’s theme). While on a subjective level I cannot hide my disappointment (again), on a more objective level it is easier to understand. Firstly, Williams himself largely abandoned his own themes (outside of the opening and closing tracks) for Prisoner of Azkaban, choosing to go a darker route with new themes. Neither Patrick Doyle nor Nicholas Hooper dwelt on any of his themes outside of a few references to the main theme (Hedwig’s). Being as how the past two films had the same director as the seventh film it was perhaps a little unreasonable to expect that Desplat would return to any of Williams’ themes. This and the fact that the characters are growing up, and certain of the light-hearted themes found in the first two films would not fit comfortably with the darker world in which they live by the seventh film. That being said, though, the minimal use of Hedwig’s theme is a tad disappointing on both levels (objective and subjective) because it is a theme which showcases Williams’ genius in that it is malleable enough to fit in the darker environment and could be re-orchestrated into a dark tour-de-force. Such, I fear, will not be the case.
Overall, as a stand-alone score, Desplat’s score for the seventh Harry Potter film is strong. Themes aplenty, thrilling action, and great pathos make this score a worthwhile entry into the franchise and a worthy companion to the other scores. Recommended.