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Soundtrack review: A hidden life (James Newton Howard – 2019)

Drama

Soundtrack review: A hidden life (James Newton Howard – 2019)

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“A Hidden Life” (formerly titled Radegund) is a 2019 historical drama film written and directed by Terrence Malick, starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, and Matthias Schoenaerts with both Michael Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz in their final performances. The film depicts the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer and devout Catholic who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. The film’s title was taken from George Eliot’s book Middlemarch. The music was written by James Newton Howard.

Terrence Malick films have a special distinction for me: all their scores get maximum rating. Regardless of composer, be it my favorite score of all time “The thin red line” by Hans Zimmer, the last few Hanan Townshend compositions or even Alexandre Desplat for “The tree of life”, the music always strikes the right chord with me and it couldn’t have been any different with James Newton Howard at the helm. As it’s often the case with WW2 dramas the soundtrack also includes some somber and poignant classical pieces.

As soon as the main theme begins, I get flashbacks of one of my favorite JNH pieces of all times, “The gravel road” from “The village”. The violin solo is simply out of this world and I need to close my eyes to let it just sink it. Joshua Bell has turned into James Ehnnes but the impact is similar and I can’t get enough of this cue. If only the score was just ethereal emotion like that but it’s a drama, so I am brought back to earth in “Surrounded by walls” where I feel pain more than anything else. The violin still takes center stage but there’s a constant pounding in the background that makes me think of a heartbeat that becomes almost deafening because of the loneliness.

The minimalist use of instruments by the composer leaves place for all the emotions the movie wants to evoke. In between the trembling strings, the ghost strings and the quiet passages the score manages to stay unobtrusive and fluid and it could very well serve as a companion not just for this movie but for reading a book on the subject as well. When it needs to silence everything around it and gain the listener or viewer’s attention, the violin rises and reigns supreme while in the same time leaving a shadow behind, like in “Morality in darkness”.

In such a fluid score sometimes, the cues melt into each other so James Newton Howard can experiment with lengths without hurting the overall listening experience. “Love and suffering”, an almost 8-minute-long piece, reminds me of the three magnum opus cues he composed for last year’s “Red sparrow”, one of which, “Didn’t I do well?” ended up as my favorite cue of 2018. He still keeps that classical composer approach for “A hidden life” and towers above 90% of the other compositions of this year.

“A hidden life” is an ode to the heartbreak of violin and, once again, one of the best scores of 2019. Fans of James Newton Howard will not be disappointed and if you are nostalgic for the likes of “The village” or “Defiance” you will not get enough of this one.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Highlights:

 A Hidden Life 

Surrounded by Walls

 Return

 Indoctrination

 Morality in Darkness 

Love and Suffering 

Hope 

 Descent 

 Knotted

 There Will Be No Mysteries

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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