Home > Reviews > THE COMPANY OF WOLVES – George Fenton


companyofwolvesTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Company of Wolves is a dark fantasy from director Neil Jordan, based on English author Angela Carter’s mature, sexualized take on the classic Little Red Riding Hood story. The film stars Sarah Patterson as a teenage girl named Rosaleen, who dreams that she lives in a fairytale forest with her parents and sister. In her dream, Rosaleen is given a bright red shawl by her kindly grandmother, accompanied by a warning to stay away from “any strange men whose eyebrows meet in the middle,” Of course, before long, Rosaleen meets a seductive and handsome young huntsman – whose eyebrows meet in the middle – and whose bestial nature proves to be overwhelmingly alluring to the impressionable young woman. The film tackles a number of interesting and complicated themes, ranging from the nature of dreams and nightmares, to emergent sexuality, desire, and revenge. The film, Jordan’s second as a director, co-starred a litany of British character actors, including Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Brian Glover, Stephen Rea, Jim Carter and Terence Stamp, and made liberal use of a number of gruesomely realistic special effects, inspired by the similarly lupine An American Werewolf in London.

The score for The Company of Wolves was written by George Fenton, who had already received an Academy Award nomination for his score for Gandhi three years previously in 1982, but who at the time was still best known for his work on prestigious British television projects like The Jewel in the Crown and the popular series Shoestring. As such, The Company of Wolves sees Fenton still finding his feet a little, compositionally speaking, having not quite established the personal style we all came to know during the late 1980s and 1990s. Anyone used to his lush and polished documentary scores, or his gorgeous romance works like Dangerous Beauty or Anna and the King, will be surprised at how aggressive and uncompromising parts of The Company of Wolves are. At its core, the film is still about teenage romantic fantasy, but Fenton doesn’t score it like that, instead concentrating on the thematic elements related to horror films, and its dark, Gothic twist. There are sections written for a large symphony orchestra, which swell and blossom beautifully, but there is also a great deal of quite impressionistic writing for solo instruments and small ensembles, and numerous examples of full-on horror scoring. Furthermore, the whole thing is coated in a sheen of synthesizers, giving everything a slightly detached, otherworldly feel, which I feel is entirely appropriate for a film which takes place wholly in a young girl’s dreams.

After a brief moment of spoken narration, in which actress Tusse Silberg reads a translated passage from Charles Perrault’s original 17th century story Le Petit Chaperon Rouge, the film’s main theme emerges during “The Message and Main Theme,” a sweeping melody for the full orchestra, first led by strings, then by brass, which manages to be beautiful and creepily ominous at the same time. Later, “One Sunday Afternoon” creates an idyllic, pastoral, even playful mood through some delightful interplay between woodwinds and strings, before gradually emerging into one of the score’s few sumptuous restatements of the main theme.

Shimmering, spectral electronic effects enhance several cues. With this score being written in the early 1980s, some of Fenton’s synth samples sound remarkably unsophisticated by contemporary standards, and some listeners may be put off by their ‘cheapness’ when compared to modern technology, but they nevertheless still add a wonderfully eerie atmosphere to pieces like “Rosaleen’s First Dream,” “The Return of the Groom,” “The Forest and The Huntsman’s Theme,” and “The Boy and The Devil.” These ideas are further enhanced by Fenton’s clever touches in the orchestration, which include the oppressive tones of a church organ, stately renaissance-inflected harpsichord ideas, unnerving breathing effects, and dissonant orchestral lines that howl and whine like creatures of the night, and chatter and skitter like claws on stone. As a comparison, some of the electronic ideas in this score remind me of the ones Jerry Goldsmith would later use in works like Legend, which were also intended to create an unsettling fairytale ambiance.

Elsewhere, parts of “All the Better To Eat You With: Arriving at Granny’s Cottage/The Promise and Transformation” have a Saint-Saëns-esque danse macabre element to them, combining more of the enchantingly sinister orchestral and synth textures with a prominent solo violin part, before devolving into frantic, extravagant orchestral chaos during its conclusive moments. The finale, which comprises “The Wolfgirl” and “Liberation,” begins with a sense of tranquility through some lovely woodwind writing, and circles through a restatement of the baleful solo violin motif heard under the opening narration, before culminating with a fanfare-like version of the main theme accompanied by great, booming synth chords and dissonant orchestral shrieks that leave the listener in no doubt that this fairy tale doesn’t have a happy ending.

In addition to Fenton’s original music, the ‘Village Wedding’ portion of “The Story of the Bride and Groom” contains traditional music arranged and performed by violinist Alistair McLachan, while “The Wedding Party” is a tortured variation on Beethoven’s String Trio Op.9 No.1.

Younger listeners may not realize that, years ago, George Fenton was considered one of the most brilliant young composers in the British film industry, and he was expected to go on to be one of the genre’s leading lights for many years to come. This sentiment was echoed by several prominent film music critics in the late 1990s, a fact that makes his virtual disappearance from mainstream film scoring over last decade all the more frustrating. Yes, he’s capable of writing great romantic themes and carving out bold dramatic strokes, but he’s also capable of unusual, creative, challenging works like The Company of Wolves, and I would love to hear him do something like this again, especially now that the advances in electronic sound design would give him much more scope for experimentation. It’s true that scores like The Company of Wolves are difficult to listen to as soundtrack albums, even when you know their context, but the creativity on display is undeniably impressive.

The soundtrack for The Company of Wolves has always been comparatively scarce. It was released on vinyl by both Varese Sarabande (in the United States) and TER Records (in the United Kingdom) to coincide with the film’s release, but it did not emerge on CD until 1990, when TER pressed a version solely for the European market. That release quickly went out of print, and for many years the album was an expensive collectible, until it was re-released on the obscure Jay Records label in 2000. That release is apparently still in print, but it goes for hefty prices on the secondary market, although it can easily be found on iTunes, for those who don’t require physical media. Anyone who knows Fenton’s more famous works, and is curious enough to want to check out some of his more unorthodox scores, is definitely encouraged to venture into these woods. Just be careful though – you never know what’s lurking at the end of the path to grandmother’s house.

Buy the Company of Wolves soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Message and Main Theme (3:16)
  • Rosaleen’s First Dream (2:58)
  • The Story of the Bride and Groom: The Village Wedding/The Return of the Groom (7:04)
  • The Forest and The Huntsman’s Theme (2:30)
  • The Wedding Party (3:48)
  • The Boy and The Devil (2:53)
  • One Sunday Afternoon (5:13)
  • All the Better To Eat You With: Arriving at Granny’s Cottage/The Promise and Transformation (5:04)
  • The Wolfgirl (4:41)
  • Liberation (2:42)

Running Time: 40 minutes 08 seconds

Jay Records CDJAY-1338 (1984/2000)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton and Robert Stewart. Electronic music design by David Lawson. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Album produced by George Fenton and James Pankow.

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