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A Haunting in Venice

There are many ways to skin a cat. After decades of asking Patrick Doyle to score his films, Kenneth Branagh decided for A Haunting in Venice to go a very different route, turning to one of film music’s hottest properties Hildur Guðnadóttir instead. As film composers they could barely be more different – not just the type of music they write, but they way they apply it to the film. To state the blindingly obvious, Doyle is a traditionalist – using the music to provide emotion as well as to enforce the film’s narrative arc – in other words, doing what film music typically did until things shifted considerably towards the start of the 21st century. In contrast, Guðnadóttir sees its role as being much more textural – to emphasise just a shade or two of a scene, to use it sparsely and to focus on the psychological state of a character or group of characters. There have always been films scored like that, too, though less commonly; both are perfectly valid approaches.

It does seem very strange that Branagh would dispense with the services of his faithful collaborator on the third film in a series, however I suppose it makes more sense given the film itself is a very different beast from the two previous Poirot adaptations. It probably helps greatly that this time it is not one of the Poirot stories that had already been given beloved film adaptations; I made a few attempts to describe it in a sentence or two before deciding that the best description is provided by the film’s four-word title.

The director decided to use sound effects as his main aural weapon, so the brief – and very sparse – score is there to essentially fill in the gaps. Guðnadóttir presents essentially the whole thing as a kind of portrait of what’s inside Poirot’s head at any given moment and what’s inside there is generally pretty unsettling. The first two cues present melodies of sorts, solo instruments swirling around fragments of ideas without them ever being fully resolved. It’s an effective technique though is much more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one, which makes it jarring to a listener more accustomed to the elegant symphonic orchestrations of Patrick Doyle; but it’s worth emphasising that it’s doing something that film music is supposed to do even if it isn’t doing it the way he would have done it.

While those opening cues are not exactly easy listening, what follows is generally considerably more challenging: the ensemble does grow very slightly but remains at chamber proportions throughout – the important point is that she instructs the performers to use unusual techniques to get strange sounds from their instruments, from the way the strings are bowed or the winds are blown. It is classically dissonant in a way that film music rarely is, particularly in these times in which most of the giants who practiced it have departed and we wait for new giants to emerge.

While I understand why many people don’t like the album – indeed, I understand why many seem to hate it with a visceral passion, given its very challenging nature – I dismiss entirely the notion that Guðnadóttir doesn’t know how to score a film or that Branagh has lost his mind in demanding a score like this. (To be clear – while Doyle wouldn’t have scored the film anything like this, he is clearly capable of writing the kind of psychological music the director was seeking and would have written a fine score for the film, I’m sure, which I’d have found much easier to enjoy on album.) The frequent complaint that the music is just too “simple” I don’t understand at all – it might be written for small instrumental forces, but it’s deeply thoughtful and I think the various different ways she finds to express turmoil and torment are really rather ingenious.

So – at the risk of losing friends and alienating people – and leaving aside the disappointment that we didn’t get a new Patrick Doyle score – I think this is a pretty fine score for the movie A Haunting in Venice. Can I honestly say that I enjoy the album? Well, I did enjoy experiencing what feel like a series of experiments at how far a certain style of film music could be pushed – but no, not really. I’ll probably never listen to it again. I understand why it is the way it is however and it’s absolutely not dumbing down by Branagh – intellectually this is lightyears beyond the generic wallpaper most 2023 film scores ultimately are. There are many ways to skin a cat.

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  1. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 1 October, 2023 at 09:08

    Reading this, I’d be very curious what you think of the soundtrack to Saw X. Any chance you might do a review on that?

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 1 October, 2023 at 15:32

      Not only have I not heard it, I’ve never heard any of the previous nine, nor seen any of the films.

      • Marco Ludema (Reply) on Monday 2 October, 2023 at 06:57

        Maybe the Saw Anthology albums could fill those gaps: they’re comprised of two CD’s and contain roughly twenty minutes of score per film.

        • Marco Ludema on Sunday 12 November, 2023 at 20:10

          Or perhaps Agatha Christie’s Poirot by the late Christopher Gunning, to keep things on-brand.

  2. MPC (Reply) on Friday 22 December, 2023 at 22:03

    I don’t think the score works at all, it’s distracting and not enhancing the emotions in the film. Doyle could’ve given Branagh what he wanted from Guonadottir without sacrificing his voice or lyricism.

    If Disney/20th Century decides to do a fourth Poirot film with Branagh, he needs to bring back Doyle pronto.