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THE GOOD LIAR – Carter Burwell

December 3, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Good Liar is a complex thriller based on a popular novel by British author Nicholas Searle. It is directed by Bill Condon and stars Sir Ian McKellen as Roy, an elderly conman who uses his wit and sophistication to swindle women out of their inheritances and savings – a real life romance scam, as it were. For his latest target he chooses Betty McLeish (Dame Helen Mirren), a widowed former history professor who he meets via an online dating app. With the help of his long-time ‘business partner’ Vincent (Jim Carter), and despite the misgivings of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey), Roy wheedles his way into Betty’s life, and when he discovers that her bank balance is in excess of £2 million, he redoubles his efforts at wooing her. However, before long, Roy finds himself having to face questions about his past, which lead to some shocking revelations. To disclose more would be a disservice to the story, suffice to say that the final half hour of the film goes in some completely unexpected directions that will either delight or dismay viewers, depending on how willing you are to accept plot twists so far out of left field they basically originate in the stadium parking lot.

The score for The Good Liar is by Carter Burwell, whose professional relationship with director Condon stretches back more than two decades and includes such titles as Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Fifth Estate, and Mr. Holmes. Condon often brings out the best in Burwell, inspiring him to write some of the most beautiful music of his career, and The Good Liar is no exception. The whole thing is awash in Burwell’s personal stylistics – the instrumental combinations and chord progressions that have made him one of the most unique-sounding and instantly identifiable composers working today – but where The Good Liar differs from some of other scores is in its inherent lyricism. There is an air of old-fashioned romance about this score which doesn’t often come through in Burwell’s contemporary work, and which is probably inspired by the ages of the protagonists. There’s also a very clear and present Bernard Herrmann-esque Hitchcockian thriller vibe, which favors strong thematic content and a more classical tone; for my personal taste, this fact alone makes it stand head and shoulders above the more rhythmic and percussive music that often accompanies films like this these days.

The whole thing is anchored around a superb quartet of recurring main themes, all of which are introduced in the title cue, “The Good Liar”. In the absence of any additional information I have named the themes myself based on my understanding of how the plot unfolds, but of course this is open to interpretation. The piece begins with Roy’s Theme, which builds slowly from a bed of melancholy strings and quietly sinister accompanying woodwinds. At 0:40 the main Good Liar Theme emerges, a more sprightly idea which adds a layer of mystery and moodiness to the score through a melody for pianos doubled by low strings and clarinets. After a darkly romantic interlude beginning at 1:17 we are then introduced to Betty’s Theme, which opens with some pretty expressions for acoustic guitars before emerging fully at 1:54; suddenly the theme becomes a wash of elegant strings augmented by some light chimes in the percussion section, embracing an attitude that is both romantic and charming, but has an air of quiet subversion to it too. The final thematic idea is what I am calling the German Theme, which first appears at 2:23, and has a more longing, old-world, nostalgic sound to its lush string and oboe writing. The rest of the cue moves seamlessly between Betty’s theme and the German theme, clearly linking the concepts together in the minds of the audience – but more on that later.

As the rest of the score gradually unfolds, Burwell links all these four themes together in a clever tapestry, often playing themes contrapuntally, with the melody of one sitting against the chords of another, and vice versa. What this does is seamlessly blend the four concepts together – Roy, Betty, Germany, and Lies – so that as the details of the plot emerge and various revelations come to light, you realize that Burwell has been subliminally planting all these inter-connected seeds in your subconscious. As such, it’s clear that The Good Liar is a very, very astutely structured work, which is something I appreciate greatly. The instrumental palette Burwell uses doesn’t change much – strings with prominent ground cellos, woodwinds with prominent clarinets and oboes, piano, harp, chimes, and so on – but he is intelligent enough to switch things around with pleasing frequency so that the sound of the score never feels stale.

Some cues are real standouts. “Betty’s Home” features the Good Liar Theme for piano and strings with a prominent electronic undercurrent, hinting that something not quite right is going on. “Up the Stairs” is built around a hesitant version of the German theme which uses clarinets in an almost comedic way. “Take Care of Our Problem” begins with an oppressive statement of Roy’s Theme featuring some noticeably great clarinet writing, piano accents, and soft gong clashes, before switching to a version of Betty’s Theme curiously accented with shakers and rattles. “Haberdashery, Down the Tube” begins with the prettiest and most charming rendition of Betty’s Theme in the entire score, but it quickly changes tack as the music accompanies Roy in a slow-speed walking chase through the London Underground; the cue’s second half is a set of variations on Roy’s Theme featuring brooding, ominous clarinets and basses, low piano chords, and xylophones in the percussion, which builds to a chaotic, dissonant, harshly (and appropriately) metallic finale.

“Berlin Reise,” “A Stop Along the Way,” and “Hans Taub Was Killed” underscores Roy and Betty’s vacation trip to Berlin where they do much more than pose for tourist snapshots in front of the Brandenberg Gate. This sequence is the crux of the story, and gives Burwell the opportunity to visit all four main themes frequently, as long-hidden secrets are revealed, tragedies come to light, and relationships shift constantly. “Berlin Reise” opens with some wonderful writing where the melody of the German Theme is crossed with the chords of Roy’s theme, and is interspersed with a slow and wistful version of Betty’s Theme that speaks of innocent romance. “A Stop Along the Way” contains an action sequence beginning at 0:57 which is quite impressive, and later works a cimbalom into the instrumental palette to give the cue a sense of time and place, as well as a possibly intentional echo of Anton Karas and The Third Man.

As the score reaches its conclusion Burwell ratchets up the tension. “Does This Look Like Home” uses disorienting, off-kilter string and piano chords, electronic pulses, dramatic timpani rumbles, and even a hint of a choir to shift the Good Liar Theme into something altogether more revelatory. “Proficient Enough” is a slow, incredibly oppressive statement of the German Theme on a broad array of woodwinds, and which also features some gorgeously mysterious cello writing. “I Went Back Home” continues in a similar vein, but also brings in Betty’s Theme, the Good Liar Theme, and some moments of dissonance to give it real dramatic weight. “He’s Lying” is fill of metallic scrapes and harsh electronic pulses, dissonant, angry, imposing, and threatening – an echo of the earlier London Underground chase sequence, and Roy’s violent part in it. Finally, in the conclusive “Deeper Than It Looks,” Burwell allows a sense of tenderness and relief to finally permeate the score with a series of lovely performances of Betty’s Theme featuring pretty pianos, delicate oboe and clarinet writing, warm strings, and harp accents.

I think the thing I like the most about The Good Liar is how unexpected it all is, for it to be this good and this intricate and this musically satisfying. Most contemporary thrillers these days tend to aim for the lowest low-hanging fruit, prepared to contribute a bit of rumbling string-based atmosphere and perhaps some electronic textures, but not much else. The fact that Carter Burwell has gone so far beyond these basics is really something worth acknowledging and celebrating, because it would have been very easy just to phone something in, have it work in context, and leave it at that. Instead, Burwell has crafted a score which has an interesting and compelling instrumental palette, and works with a quartet of thematic ideas which are not only enjoyable to listen to, but enhance the story, its narrative, and its subtext with subtle foreshadowing, clever layering, and an intellectual understanding of what the music is doing, and why.

Buy the Good Liar soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Good Liar (3:41)
  • Betty’s Home (1:19)
  • The River Styx (0:56)
  • Up the Stairs (0:34)
  • A Wire (1:25)
  • Take Care of Our Problem (1:39)
  • Meat (1:39)
  • Haberdashery, Down the Tube (4:09)
  • Berlin Reise (3:12)
  • A Stop Along the Way (3:24)
  • Hans Taub Was Killed (5:41)
  • Stick to the Plan (2:33)
  • Does This Look Like Home? (3:57)
  • Proficient Enough (3:45)
  • I Went Back Home (4:52)
  • He’s Lying (2:19)
  • Deeper Than It Looks (2:34)

Running Time: 47 minutes 49 seconds

Watertower Records (2019)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell and Sonny Kompanek. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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