Home > Reviews > THE COURIER – Abel Korzeniowski

THE COURIER – Abel Korzeniowski

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Courier is an old-fashioned slow burn Cold War spy thriller in the classic John Le Carré mold, directed by Dominic Cooke. The film tells the true story of Greville Wynne, a middle-class English businessman who is recruited by both the CIA and MI6 to act as a go-between in their dealings with Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking official in Soviet military intelligence who wants to defect to the west. Wynne is instrumental in obtaining information about the Soviet nuclear missile programme, helping Penkovsky smuggle details out of Moscow and back to London; the intelligence he gathers is crucial to ending the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, but it comes at great personal cost to Wynne and his family. The film is anchored by a brilliant lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne, a typical everyman who is thrust almost against his will into a world of espionage that he knows nothing about; he is ably supported by Merab Ninidze as Penkovsky, Jessie Buckley as Wynne’s long-suffering wife Sheila, and Rachel Brosnahan and Angus Wright as Wynne’s secret service handlers.

The score for The Courier is by the great Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski. It’s been a long three years since his last theatrically released film – The Nun, back in September 2018 – but it has been worth the wait, as The Courier is a typically classy, thoroughly entertaining score. In order to capture a classic ‘period’ sound for the film Korzeniowski recorded the score in “a large, old scoring stage in Warsaw with the Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia, which infused it with the characteristically expressive and emotional Eastern-European sound.” When talking about the inspiration behind the music, Korzeniowski says that his starting point was “the constant anxiety, relentless suppression and grotesque absurdity embedded in everyday life behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain,” and that the sound is “raw and rough at times, like a concrete wall of the prefabricated social housing of that period.”

The core of the score is a waltz, heard in its entirety in the seventh cue “It Has to Be You,” and which Korzeniowski describes as “representing the reckless cloak-and-dagger ploy and the growing friendship between a rookie British spy and a Russian defector.” Korzeniowski hasn’t written a waltz with this sort of classical sound in years, and it’s a wonderfully evocative piece, rich and lush, which perfectly encapsulates the concept of spycraft and espionage as being akin to a dance, full of moving pieces and requiring expert timing to achieve. Cleverly, it also speaks to the classicism of the film’s Russian setting, and fits in with the stylistics of the film’s two central ballet sequences, where music from Prokofiev‘s Cinderella and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is heard in full symphonic glory. In film context the waltz is heard much more frequently than it is on the album, and it clearly establishes itself as the film’s primary melodic identity.

Much of the rest of the score comprises taut thriller music, punctuated by moments of exciting action that captures the illicit drama of life as a cold war spy. Perhaps the most prominent idea in the score is the concept of movement; the movement of people, the movement of information, the wheels of bureaucracy and politics constantly turning and churning as the three countries at the center of the story – the UK, the USA, and the Soviet Union – try to best one another. Korzeniowski uses a fairly consistent instrumental base to carry the score, comprising strings with prominent cellos, piano, metallic percussion, occasional light woodwinds, and occasional light brass, and then allows these recurring textures to move around each other in a series of interesting ways, often highlighting one specific texture to give different cues personality.

Several cues stand out as highlights. “First Contact” initially has a sinister edge, but quickly becomes quite intense, a phalanx of chugging cellos overlaid with striking, dangerous-sounding string figures and a bold, almost jazzy piano line. “Greville” has a light, delicate pizzicato idea overlaid with soft woodwinds and an elegant duet for cello and piano, painting his comfortable middle-class life as an English businessman with the blasé attitude of post-war Britain. Interestingly, there are hints of the chord progressions of the waltz theme here, planting the seeds of foreshadowing that will later blossom into the superb main theme.

“Prelude” is written for elegant strings and clarinets, and is elegant but ominous, and even a little hypnotic, with definite influences of Russian classical music in its structure. The cue underscores the film’s opening scene of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev giving a typically fist-thumping speech to the politburo, and is effective at establishing the musical tone for the entire film. Later, “Eyes of the State” is dark and menacing, like the KGB itself, and makes excellent use of layers of strings and metallic percussion, with slithery transitions into writing for hooting woodwinds.

However, for me, the most impressive parts of the score are the action sequences, beginning with the superb “Spies and Typewriters”. The cue is full of busy, gracefully energetic strings, pulsing cello rhythms, rolling piano lines, and lightly ticking percussion ideas, again perfectly illustrating the concept of movement that I alluded to earlier. The exciting, breathless “Our Last Trip to Moscow” builds on these ideas further, and contains some especially outstanding writing for pianos. Everything comes to a head in the terrific “Trenchcoats vs. KGB” which underscores the intense but ultimately ill-fated CIA/MI6 effort to smuggle Penkovsky out of the Soviet Union to freedom in the west with a sense of relentless energy that builds to a tremendous finale.

After Wynne is arrested and imprisoned in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison, Korzeniowski’s music becomes a turgid, hollow accompaniment to his experiences in the hands of the Soviet authorities. “Arrested” initially uses dark, threatening string lines, but quickly deconstructs into a series of eerie orchestral dissonances and grating distortions, capturing the horror of Wynne’s new surroundings. “Cold Soup” introduces a brand new theme – what I’m calling the ‘Lament for Greville’ – a piece for solo cello and piano which is melodic but dirge-like, full of woe, and darkly beautiful. “Breakdown” takes the lament to its murkiest depths with a slower and more intense version of the same piano and cello theme, while the subsequent “When You Come Home” underscores the scene where Sheila visits an emaciated Wynne in the Soviet gulag with high, emotional strings that are deeply moving and effectively tragic.

Eventually “Maybe We Are Only Two People” brings the score to an uplifting finale. Korzeniowski builds slowly from a solo cello line and eventually allows the full orchestra to embrace the score with an overwhelming sense of relief and redemption. Many of the chord progressions here are again lifted directly from the waltz theme, while Korzeniowski’s rhapsodic piano writing and stirring string accompaniment allows the audience to feel Wynne’s liberation at finally coming home; the melodic surges, cymbal rings, and timpani hits in the cue’s second half are emotionally powerful.

As I mentioned earlier in the review, it’s been far too long since Abel Korzeniowski last had a film in general release, but scores like The Courier are more than worth the wait. This is an excellent spy thriller score from start to finish; it’s filled with the right amount of tension as befits the film’s political skullduggery, often emerges into wonderfully energetic action sequences, is anchored by a memorable and elegant waltz main theme, and builds to an emotionally powerful conclusion. What more could one want? Well, actually, I want more than one new Abel Korzeniowski score every three years, but for now I’ll take this one, and I unreservedly recommend that you do too.

Buy the Courier soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Spies and Typewriters (2:23)
  • Iron Curtain (2:22)
  • First Contact (2:01)
  • Greville (1:34)
  • Secret Meeting (2:15)
  • Prelude (1:30)
  • It Has to Be You (3:06)
  • Eyes of the State (2:07)
  • Cigarettes (2:08)
  • Cuban Missiles (1:05)
  • Our Last Trip to Moscow (4:02)
  • I Have a Light Day (1:18)
  • Trenchcoats vs. KGB (3:04)
  • Arrested (2:25)
  • Cold Soup (2:11)
  • Breakdown (1:32)
  • When You Come Home (1:04)
  • Maybe We Are Only Two People (4:40)

Running Time: 40 minutes 47 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Abel Korzeniowski. Performed by Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia. Orchestrations by Abel Korzeniowski. Recorded and mixed by James T. Hill. Edited by Stuart Morton. Album produced by Abel Korzeniowski and Mina Korzeniowski.

  1. Acryan
    April 6, 2021 at 7:07 pm

    I thought the waltz theme from The Courier “It Has To Be You“ is quite clearly emulating The Second Waltz by Shostakovic in structure and rhythm, thereby alluding to Russian culture, which has brought the world so much beauty, and contrasting it with the ugliness of the Cold War.

  2. Jacek Dziewinski
    April 22, 2021 at 9:34 pm

    The Wałcz is a plagiarism from Wałlz 2 by Shostakovich

  3. Robert LaRue
    July 2, 2021 at 6:53 pm

    Well I wouldn’t call it plagiarism; it is very similar in orchestration (no saxophone, though) sound and structure, but the melodies are not at all the same. In fact, I came to this site to see if I could find whether Shostakovich had written another waltz that the movie score might be based on. In any case, we know that there are at least people who immediately thought of the 2nd Waltz.

  4. Jeremiah salyer
    July 22, 2021 at 5:26 pm

    I liked the movie but felt it was a soundtrack rip off of Shostakovich‘a second jazz suite the waltz.

  1. June 10, 2021 at 10:22 pm
  2. July 29, 2021 at 11:31 am

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