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Review by Brad Green:
The disappointment should be less sharp as we grow older. When we are six, and the wrapping is torn eagerly from our present to reveal that the Toy of Wonder is in fact an electric toothbrush, the world seems to end in a haze of blighted expectation. But experience teaches us to brace ourselves. We will not be shattered when our partner forgets an anniversary. We already assume that our plea for promotion will be an unrivalled source of mirth for our employer. We steel our collective heart not to droop like the soufflé that has once against demonstrated our culinary mediocrity. 

Yet I can’t help feeling like a crushed child under a Xmas tree. A lot of CDs come my way, and I open the jewel boxes and feed the stereo without too much forethought. But it is inevitable that sometimes the name of a composer will spring forth from the album cover and douse me in anticipation. Rachel Portman is such a name. Her work epitomises the soundtracks that I love the most. Orchestral scores shimmering with vibrancy and imagination, thematically dense, melodically attractive and forever promising a new surprise at every cue. 

This is the first Portman score that fails to deliver on that promise. In fact, it boasts very few of the qualities that make her work so eagerly anticipated. Perhaps there was a warning in the genre shift. A military trial film is a far cry from the romantic comedies such as Only You and Emma that boast the most celebrated Portman scores. But with Cider House Rules she displayed a brilliant knack at skipping between whimsy, urgency and melancholy; so I had little doubt she would find an appropriate yet captivating tone for a WWII setting. 

I was half right. The music is appropriate but it is far from captivating. It is almost as if Portman is trying too hard to avoid the effervescence that bubbles through her romantic scores. Instead of finding a way to modify her twinkling piano and woodwind arrangements to service stark drama, she discharges them from duty and relies on blocks of strings that march in lumbering chord chunks, bolstered only by short, predictable and repetitive ostinatos.

The score starts auspiciously enough, featuring a solo trumpet motif that carries with it the same solemn poignancy as the Last Post. Soon however, it surrenders to blocks of strings, lumbering chord chunks that move smoothly through their lugubrious harmonies, but do little more than evoke the starkness of a prison camp. The sombre mood is apropos; the disappointment is that Portman fails to infuse it with emotional piquancy. 

For a reflective mood, this is not an unpleasant score to lay back and listen to. But it is a jobbing effort, and no more, from one of the world’s most talented and distinctive composers.

Published June 13, 2002

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TITLE: Hart’s War
ID: 016 886-2
COMPOSER: Rachel Portman
PRODUCER: Rachel Portman

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