Many soundtracks these days struggle to stand out from the crowd, all too often sounding either anonymous or like someone else. However prolific film composer James Newton Howard has hit the mark many times with sublime results - King Kong, Waterworld, The Village, Snow Falling on Cedars… all are exemplary, melodic delights. But his best work comes from 1995, for a now forgotten costume drama called Restoration. Directed by Michael Hoffman, Restoration (based on Rose Tremain’s novel) is set in 17th century London and tells the story of fledgling physician Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr.) who is invited to join the court of King Charles II (Sam Neill). Set against a backdrop of political upheaval and disaster (the Great Fire of 1666 features at one stage), Hoffman’s film won two Oscars but is little remembered today.
However, one glorious asset remains vital as ever, and that is Newton Howard’s score. A sumptuous pastiche, it apes music from the period (Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in particular) while also ensuring that the composer’s original voice shines through. The Main Titles are possibly the finest three minutes of Howard’s career to date, a triumphant fanfare for processional brass and strings that is truly thrilling. Rather than rest on his laurels, Howard proceeds to put this theme through a number of variations before the track is over, placing particular and accurate emphasis on strings and harpsichord. It is magnificent.
Truth be told, this theme is more a backbone for the rest of the score to be built on; Howard’s familiar voice is the one that appears more often, shining through in the gentle prancing strings and woodwind of A Night With Lulu. However, he is immensely careful to filter this voice through the stylistics of the period, ensuring it retains a delightfully classical air throughout. The Restoration theme itself, a somewhat melancholy oboe-led piece and introduced in A Creature of the New Age, continues in much the same vein. When it soars to the romantic heights of The Wedding, it’s truly wonderful. Orchestration is key, especially the interplay between the jaunty woodwind/harpsichord interludes and the more euphoric timpani statements, the latter of which doesn’t get better than The Cabinet of Curiosities, one which brings back the opening theme in full force.
As the album progresses however, the sense of melancholia increases, the Main Titles increasingly sidelined by the ‘awakening’ sound of the Restoration theme, as Merivel struggles with the implications of the decadent lifestyle offered to him. The Right Knowledge is particularly moving, the orchestra rising to grandly tragic heights, prior to the gloomy, rumbling The Plague, underscoring a more desperate turn of events. Katherine’s Death and Night Sweats are highlights, a heart-wrenching series of variations (including the introduction of pipe organs, bells and choir) on the main theme. Just as we are sunk into despair however, Howard’s intelligently structured score pulls us out of the abyss, with the triumphant organ in Doctor Merivel hearkening back to the opening.
Here is where both the cinematic restoration and that of Howard’s music truly begins but there is one final obstacle to overcome: The Fire, purging London’s ills for good, before it can be built up again. Howard’s music is a mix of celebratory and tragic, as the city is razed to the ground. The glorious finale Your Child I Believe therefore boasts a euphoric quality, as a cleansed humanity looks to the future before the terrific, brief Newcastle closes the book on the music and the period with a reprise of the Main Titles theme.
Restoration is without doubt Newton Howard’s finest score, fusing musical innovation and pastiche with his own sound in one unique package. Very infrequently does he have the opportunity to scale these heights and it’s a tragedy in and of itself that his score was released in 1995, when James Horner alone managed a limelight-stealing 6 soundtracks. Had the competition not been so fierce, it would have undoubtedly been a shoo-in for an Oscar. Although the soundtrack is not available in large numbers you can track it down starting from these links at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com