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PHILOMENA – Alexandre Desplat

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

philomenaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 2009 former BBC journalist and British Labour party political advisor Martin Sixsmith wrote the non-fiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about the forcible separation of a mother and child by the nuns of an Irish convent, and the subsequent attempts of the mother and child to contact one another. This book has now been adapted by director Stephen Frears and writer Steve Coogan into the film Philomena, which charts the odd-couple relationship between Sixsmith and Lee as they journey to the United States to try to track down her son, and provides an interesting and damning look at the topic of the forced adoptions practiced by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s. The film stars writer Coogan as Sixsmith, Dame Judi Dench as Philomena, and has an original score by Alexandre Desplat, who previously worked with director Frears on the films The Queen, Cheri and Tamara Drewe.

After spending the last half-decade as one of the go-to-composers for Hollywood tentpole films, Alexandre Desplat has had a quiet 2013. He has still been working, of course, but mainly on smaller French and European films: Renoir for director Gilles Bourdos, Fanny for director Daniel Auteuil, and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur. With George Clooney’s Monuments Men having been moved to 2014, this leaves Philomena as Desplat’s most high-profile work of the year, the only film to receive an American theatrical release.

The score, as one would expect, is steeped in all the usual Desplatisms that one has come to expect from his music over the years – precise, almost mathematical rhythmic ideas and internal tempos; clean, crisp orchestrations; and regular use of waltz-time patterns. However, whereas in previous scores, Desplat used his waltzes to depict a certain sense of decadence and opulence in the film itself, in Philomena he seems to be using them to illustrate the slightly confused, adorably ding-batty nature of Philomena herself, whose journey from her small town in rural Ireland to the modern metropolises of contemporary America to find her long lost son is scored with combination of circus music and wide-eyed wonderment, but a real sense of emotion and compassion.

In terms of sound, Philomena has a lot in common with several other scores, notably titles like Girl With a Pearl Earring, Birth, The Queen, The Ghost Writer and Cheri, but this is not to say that Philomena is unoriginal. After a certain period of time, a composer’s signature sound simply begins to assert itself more and more as the listener is exposed to more and more of his music; it is inevitable that, the more familiar you are with a composer’s work, the more you recognize personal musical tics and ideas: just as you can tell John Barry’s string writing, Elliot Goldenthal’s brass writing, or Rachel Portman’s woodwinds, so too Desplat’s distinctive writing style is becoming more and more apparent.

There are several identifiable themes. Philomena’s theme, extrapolated from nine central notes, has a bouncy, almost childlike fairground quality to it, capturing her sense of innocence and naïve worldview through a playful beat and whimsical orchestrations. The opening “Philomena” presents the theme in several guises, initially for high, dreamy strings underpinned by hooting calliope-style woodwinds and chimes, before being taken over by an electric guitar, a harp, and much more besides. Its recapitulations in cues such as “Laundry”, under a tense string sustain in “Reminiscence”, in the perky and charming “Airport”, and the lyrical “Memories” maintain her presence and importance throughout the score. Conversely, Martin Sixsmith’s theme is a little more austere and serious, as befits the stature of one of Britain’s pre-eminent political journalists, and its main performance in “Martin” has the hustle and bustle of life in London down to a tee, all purposeful movement and strident forward motion.

However, probably the most important theme is the third one, which appears to act as a leitmotif for Philomena’s long lost son, Michael. It first appears in a deconstructed form in “Birth” which, like its cinematic namesake, uses low bass pulses combined with glockenspiels, piano, and plucked strings to add a level of tension and drama. It reappears, deconstructed once again, as a repeated guitar and harp figure in “Adoption”, and in the opening moments of “Discovering Michael”, before really coming into its own in “Landing in USA”, where the theme has a real sense of optimism and hope to it. The lush string writing and major-key chord progressions in that cue are thoroughly lovely.

Its subsequent performances come in the equally lovely “Mary” and the more downbeat trio “Confession”, “Quiet Time, To Pete’s” and “Anthony’s Story”, where the repeated guitar and harp figure from earlier in the score re-appears, fleshed out into a more obvious performance of the theme, but with a more introspective, less sentimental feel. These performances ensure that Michael is the focus of the entire second half of the score, as it should be, but do not sensationalize or trivialize Philomena’s journey to the truth.

In addition to remaining respectful of the tone of the film, the one other thing Desplat really doesn’t do, thankfully, is delve into the tired old Irish “kiss the blarney stone, begorrah, look at the leprechaun” stereotypical orchestrations that could easily have afflicted this film in the hands of a lesser composer. His only concession to traditional Irish instrumentation seems to be the inclusion of a bodhrán drum in the aforementioned “Quiet Time, To Pete’s”, and the score is only stronger for his restraint and sensitivity in scoring the drama and the comedy rather than the location.

The final two cues, “Farewell” and “Fairground Carousel”, return to Philomena’s theme, albeit in two very different guises. “Farewell” has a sense of quiet resignation, a melancholy waltz, while the “Fairground Carousel” is unexpectedly traditional, with the sound of a calliope pipe organ making a much more prominent return, ending the score on an unusual, quirky note.

Philomena is a comparatively lightweight score in the wider context of Alexandre Desplat’s career, but having been largely absent from mainstream scoring projects since Argo and Zero Dark Thirty a year ago, its nice to hear from him again. While the themes are not immediately memorable, Philomena more than makes up for this with plenty of appropriate emotion, beautiful textures and orchestrations, and sensible and intelligent application of the thematic material that is there. If Philomena ends up being a popular hit with Academy voters in other categories I can see Desplat sneaking in with an Oscar nomination on Judi Dench and Steve Coogan’s coat tails; otherwise, it’s a pleasant reminder of the fact that Desplat remains one of the most interesting and uniquely-voiced composers working today.

Buy the Philomena soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Philomena (2:53)
  • Martin (1:38)
  • Birth (3:00)
  • Laundry (1:59)
  • Adoption (3:37)
  • Drives to Roscrea (1:15)
  • Reminiscence (1:48)
  • Airport (3:11)
  • Landing in USA (1:35)
  • Discovering Michael (4:52)
  • Mary (1:56)
  • Confession (5:48)
  • Memories (1:16)
  • No Thought of Ireland (2:07)
  • Quiet Time, To Pete’s (3:36)
  • Anthony’s Story (3:25)
  • Sister Hildegarde (3:14)
  • Farewell (2:48)
  • Fairground Carousel (1:08)

Running Time: 51 minutes 20 seconds

Decca (2013)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Sylvain Morizet and Nicolas Charron. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

  1. craig richard lysy
    November 30, 2013 at 4:20 am

    Jon, another finer review. The music was perfectly attenuated to the film, and for me it is an excellent score. The third theme moved me the most. God I miss him. Are any of his 2013 European scores available? All the best

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