When one thinks of illustrious director-composer partnerships, any number can leap to mind, Steven Spielberg/John Williams, Tim Burton/Danny Elfman and Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann to name but three. One of the most enduring (and underrated) is the longstanding friendship between Kenneth Branagh and Patrick Doyle, whose association stretches all the way back to Branagh's directorial debut Henry V, released in 1989. In fact, the two men actually collaborated prior to that, Doyle having scored Branagh's Renaissance Theatre production of the Bard's Twelfth Night in 1987. The Branagh/Doyle partnership is of course most celebrated for its Shakespearean work, ranging from dark and broiling (Henry V) to exuberant and joyous (Much Ado About Nothing) and sweepingly tragic (Hamlet). However, as befits Branagh's varied directorial career they have worked together across a host of genres, from darkly gothic thrillers (Dead Again; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) to Marvel superhero blockbusters (Thor). Into these ranks comes their latest collaboration, Cinderella, a film that marks their first fairy tale project and which stands proud as one of the most beautiful scores of Doyle's career.
Branagh's live action take on Disney's Cinderella sticks refreshingly close to the traditional origins of Charles Perrault's iconic 1697 story. Downton Abbey's Lily James plays Cinderella with excellent support from Cate Blanchett as wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, Richard Madden as the dashing Prince Kit and Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother. Forgoing the dark revisionist approach of recent movies like Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent, this version of Cinderella lines up all the expected elements (cute mice; glass slippers; the pumpkin coach; a lavish ball) but invests them with a fresh sense of emotion thanks to smart writing, strong performances and the impeccable technical quality of the production.
Central to the film's charm is Doyle's score, which envelops the action in an enchanting sense of whimsy. As with the composer's best works it's fully melodic, steering away from the modernistic sounds of Thor and Rise of the Planet of the Apes to revel in a sense of old-fashioned nostalgia. Doyle bases the score around three primary themes: one encapsulating the warm-hearted Cinderella herself, another representing the legacy of Cinderella's beloved late mother, who's responsible for instilling in our heroine values of decency and courage, and the third for the burgeoning romance between Cinders and the Prince. The second theme is in fact adapted from 17th English nursery rhyme "Lavender's Blue", the melody of which is woven into several of the score cues.
Right from the start of the evocatively titled opening track, "A Golden Childhood", the tone of the score and the orchestral flourishes become immediately clear: trilling woodwinds, noble brass, playful piano and warm strings, embellished with chimes and xylophones to give a sense of magical wonderment. One can sense Doyle drawing not only on his own back catalogue and that of the 1950 film score by Oliver Wallace and Paul J. Smith, but also classical composers like Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries, whose works proved such a huge influence on the scores for Disney animations. The exquisitely lovely "The Great Secret" continues with Cinderella's theme on a wavering violin before it's taken up by a piano solo of great delicacy and the fulsome "A New Family" continues in much the same vein. Tempting as it is to describe the music as saccharine, Doyle's skill with melody and his sincere touch see us through. There's also the odd darker moment to temper the sweetness, as the brooding choir and toiling strings in the latter half of "A New Family" demonstrate, a secondary motif representing Blanchett's scheming Lady Tremaine.
"Life and Laughter" is a charming bit of classical pastiche with airy strings recalling any number of esteemed composers whilst "The First Branch" glides along on an intimate piano solo hearkening back to Doyle's very own Sense and Sensibility score. "Nice and Airy", as its title suggests, is featherweight and dainty, zipping from the winds to the strings with a subtle choir in the background, orchestral mickey mousing at its classiest. "Orphaned" introduces the first proper note of sadness, beginning with undulating harp and distant choir as Cinders begins to contemplate her new life of servitude with Lady Tremaine, before building into a moving duet for piano and cello. This is where the score succeeds: even though Doyle draws from the same orchestral well throughout, the tastefully judged shifts in tone prevent the music from becoming overbearingly sickly.
The score shifts again in "The Stag", which following a sad opening builds into a boisterously exciting action piece that pounds along with the full force of the orchestra, chock full of rousing brass tones and rhythmic strings. Towards the end of the track, we get our first listen of the love theme, accompanying the first meeting between Cinderella and Kit during a stag hunt. It's a theme that will come to play an increasingly prominent role as the soundtrack proceeds. "Rich Beyond Reason" takes things in a more tongue-in-cheek, frivolous direction, a wavering string solo and plenty of tinkling chimes representing the decadent idiocy of Cinderella's ugly (on the inside, at least) step-sisters.
Similarly tongue-in-cheek is the fluttering, lightweight nature of "Fairy Godmother", the darting strings and woodwinds capturing the scatty nature of Helena Bonham Carter's take on the character. Especially amusing are the deep brass tones in following track "Pumpkins and Mice", which resemble the enlarged pumpkin that is to act as Cinderella's coach to the ball. As Cinders prepares to meet her destiny in the following "To the Ball", Doyle's love theme reaches stunningly operatic heights, anticipating the moment when she will meet the Prince again.
We then get to "Valse Royale", the first of several piece of pastiche music written by Doyle before filming started, and played back to the actors on set during the pivotal ballroom scene. The pieces comprise two waltzes and four polkas, each adapting one of the score's principal themes, but before that, one of the highpoints is unveiled in "Who Is She?", a soaringly beautiful piece of music accompanying Cinderella's entrance to the ball in full view of the stunned crowds. Doyle connects all three of the score's principal themes, beginning with a choral version of the love theme, continuing with a piano variation on Cinderella's theme and ending with a variation on the "Lavender's Ball" piece, a track that sums up the movie's sense of romanticism.
There is then a run of the aforementioned polkas and waltzes, "La Valse de L'Amour", "La Valse Champagne", "La Polka Militaire", "La Polka de Paris", and "La Polka de Minuit", ranging from the stately to the rambunctious. The adaptations of Cinderella's theme in "L'Amour" and the sprightly secondary motif for her stepsisters in "Champagne" are especially noteworthy, although the frenetic nature of "Minuit" is the most entertaining. In between, the quiet and ethereal track "A Secret Garden" calms everything down although it ends with clanging bells, anticipating Cinderella's transformation back into a servant girl at the stroke of midnight. Doyle then incorporates the bustling nature of the waltzes and polkas in the tracks "Choose That One" and "Pumpkin Pursuit", the score's action highlights which mix excitingly rhythmic brass and strings with a propulsive sense of urgency, as Cinders is compelled to flee from the ball.
"The Slipper" is another tender, albeit brief, moment of respite before the darker material for Lady Tremaine rears its head in "Shattered Dreams", accompanying one of the film's best scenes as the archetypal wicked stepmother reveals the motivations for her cruelty. The ghostly choir in the latter track is an excellent touch, humanising Blanchett's hissable performance by suggesting that Tremaine is haunted by the ghosts of her past. "Searching the Kingdom" restores the sense of jubilant happiness, resonant brass calling out as the search for Cinderella gets underway.
The climactic two score tracks, "Ella and Kit" and "Love and Kindness", end the album, somewhat refreshingly, with as much emphasis on intimacy as on broad flourishes. Piano-led variations on the three main themes remind us that all's well that ends well, and the score then bows out with a magisterial climax including bells and choir to bring everything to a close. The album then rounds off with a host of songs, including "Strong" performed by London singer/songwriter Sonna Rele, "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" by star Lily James, and original Cinderella classic "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo (The Magic Song)" by Helena Bonham Carter. Instrumental variations on the aforementioned three tracks are also included.
Patrick Doyle has built a reputation as one of the most melodic and sensitive of film composers and the glorious score for Cinderella does nothing to buck the trend. If Doyle's recent scores like Thor, Brave and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit only hit the mark in places, Cinderella is a throwback to the composer's career highlights not just with Kenneth Branagh but also the likes of Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess; Great Expectations) and Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Thematically strong and memorable, with enough variations in tone to prevent the music from becoming overly syrupy, Cinderella honours the history of Disney animated soundtracks whilst reminding listeners why they fell in love with Doyle's work in the first place. There's no denying that he and Branagh make excellent collaborators, the director clearly encouraging Doyle to get involved with the production as early as possible to maximise the impact of the music. Cinderella is a magical score, one of the finest of the year and of Doyle's esteemed career.