Restoration wit William Congreve opined that music had charms to soothe the savage breast, but in “The Sonata,” it has power to summon the savage beast — you know, the one usually depicted with horns, tail, and a pitchfork. This handsome horror meller set primarily in France benefits considerably from location shooting in cheaper, but picturesque Latvia. It’s Looks 10, Personality 4, however, as director Andrew Desmond and collaborator Arthur Morin’s screenplay doesn’t quite provide enough incident to properly milk its own premise, making for a supernatural thriller that ends just as it’s beginning to work up a sweat.
Opening on 11 U.S. screens Jan. 10 (simultaneous with on-demand release), it’s a watchable if ultimately underwhelming exercise. Perhaps the most notable element here is one of the late Rutger Hauer’s final performances, though he completed several other projects after this late-arriving import, which has played festivals and theatrical runs in various territories since late 2018.
Classical music has long occupied a small niche in horror cinema, from “Phantom of the Opera” and “Hands of Orlac” incarnations to recent “The Perfection.” Even the notion of a “Satanic” composition feels familiar, having already been exploited in films like the Roger Corman-produced “Haunted Symphony” a quarter-century ago. Still, “The Sonata” holds promise for a while in elegant atmospherics, if not narrative originality.
Rose Fisher (Australian thesp Freya Tingley) is a fast-rising concert violinist who “doesn’t have time” for anything but work. The cause of her rather brusque, humorless demeanor appears to be something she’s never shared with longtime agent/manager Charles (Simon Abkarian) — her father is Richard Marlowe (Hauer), a notorious composer who abandoned her in infancy, as well as her since-deceased mother. He then retreated into much-gossiped-about seclusion, refusing to become the “savior of British classical music” many had anticipated.
Now he’s dead, having committed a grotesque suicide by self-immolation. As sole heir, Rose reluctantly reveals the secret of her much-resented parentage to Charles, simultaneously taking the opportunity to inform she’ll soon be replacing him with bigger talent-agency representation. She is not the most sympathetic of heroines.
Rose interrupts her busy schedule to visit the splendid 11th-century stone manse in the French countryside she now owns (actually 19th-century Cesvaine Palace in Latvia’s Madona District), soon discovering that her estranged dad was working on a new score — a violin sonata, in fact. The vibe hereabouts is a bit creepy even before she susses that locals despised her father, suspecting him in the disappearance of several children over the years.
Meanwhile, Charles isn’t about to let his only valuable client go so easily, particularly when she’s come into possession of a potential publicity goldmine (the hitherto unknown sonata). So he starts doing his own research. The two eventually glean that Marlowe was obsessed with a long-dormant secret order whose members believed demonic forces could be summoned with the right musical invocation. While Rose’s reaction to this discovery is fearful, Charles seems to become possessed by malevolent purpose.
Their dynamic is the main one here, yet Tingley’s peevish protagonist and Abkarian’s conflicted flunky (a more complicated if erratically developed character who really should be the primary focus) aren’t very involving, either individually or as a pair. The better performances are in supporting parts, notably those played by James Faulkner and Matt Barber, but they’re fairly marginalized. While Hauer’s figure is the plot linchpin, in terms of actual screentime, it’s basically a tricked-up cameo that might well have been shot in a day or two.
“The Sonata” focuses too heavily on Rose being vaguely menaced without much actually happening (save a couple effective jump scares), before or after Charles actually arrives on site. The climax involves some CGI — and, naturally, playing of the sonata. But it’s a bit too little, too late to provide sufficient payoff for a thriller that, despite decent moment-to-moment pacing, drags out its anticipatory finger-twiddling far too long.
Nonetheless, Desmond’s first directorial feature demonstrates a smooth craftsmanship and attractive aesthetic that elevates this thin material to an extent, and would certainly be welcome in a better-realized narrative context. DP Janis Eglitis and production designer Audrius Dumikas conjure a color palette heavy on blues, greens, and blacks that makes the film a consistent pleasure to look at, even if some devices (notably overhead shots) are a mite over-used.
Alexis Maingaud’s score, encompassing both background music and Marlowe’s composition, is also accomplished. It isn’t very scary, though, particularly for something that’s meant to say hey to Satan himself. And that is a charge you could level at “The Sonata” as a whole.