Review by Brad Green:
I feel sorry for anyone young and blinkered enough to equate the entire
murder mystery genre with Inspectors Morose and Waxworks. Dogged detectives to
be sure, but their contemporary cases are dull as petty crime compared to the
investigation of dark deeds amidst the mores of an older England.
Great murder mystery is as much about mood and ambience as clever dicks
revealing whodunit. Even the eternal appeal of Doyle’s and Christie’s
sleuths sprung as much from the fertile atmosphere of their stories as Holmes’
and Poirot’s idiosyncrasies. And if any modern auteur is a master of milieu it
is Robert Altman; no one else can juggle a galaxy of stars, multi-layered plots
and brisk editing with such aplomb. Instead of causing confusion, he allows his
audience to inhabit a cinematic world, and one of the key elements making it
easy for the audience to find its bearings is the music.
There are four features to this soundtrack, each evocative in its own way.
Three belong to Patrick Doyle’s score and the third is a collection of Ivor
Novello songs. Novello is actually written into the film as a character, where
he is played by Jeremy Northam, who also performs most of these witty ditties.
Northam does well enough to make me wonder whether he might nab a spot at next
years Proms; Jeremy Irons having previously made good work of a Noel Coward
medley on the famous Last Night of that FA Cup-meets-Beethoven fest. Curiously,
Coward who was Novello’s friend and rival for pre-eminence on stage, screen
and music hall, also appeared as an historical figure recently, in the light,
BBC tele-comedy series Goodnight Sweetheart.
Doyle’s score makes rich use of a small ensemble. There are seductive
piano, guitar and strings melodies that reflect the same ostentatious opulence
as Richard Robbins beautiful scores for Merchant/Ivory productions, and hint at
a touch of the ominous lurking behind the elegance. These are the high society
cues, music for the aristocrats and parvenus of the upstairs drawing room. Yet
just as romantic and suggestive are the themes for the downstairs populace:
again beautifully orchestrated with a minimalist approach and given earthiness
by the introduction of folksy accordion. These two styles of cue are punctuated
by Novello’s music hall tunes and the third element of Doyle’s score: some
exquisite period jazz, swinging on the melodic lines of a sweet and reedy
As one cue makes way for the next, and the styles merge in and out, the
atmosphere slowly thickens against a backdrop of decadent decor. Luminous as the
combined flames of a candelabra, ironic as the mannerisms within the manor of
the story’s setting and redolent of thrilling intrigue, this is a soundtrack
to be enjoyed from first track to last without having to endure a moment’s
Published March 28, 2002