SUFFRAGETTE – Alexandre Desplat
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Women in the United Kingdom did not receive the right to vote until 1928. The issue of universal suffrage had been a parliamentary hot potato since at least 1872, and had dominated the political lives of several of the country’s leaders at the time, most notably King George V, and prime ministers David Lloyd George and Herbert Henry Asquith, all of whom were vehemently opposed to it. Things came to a head following the formation of the influential Women’s Social and Political Union, which had shifted sentiments in favor of women’s suffrage by 1906, but was equally criticized for its militant and sometimes violent campaign. Most commentators credit two women with changing the minds of British politicians: Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the WSPU (and the British equivalent of Susan B. Anthony), and Emily Davison, who intentionally walked in front of, and was subsequently trampled and killed by, the King’s horse Anmer during the running of the 1913 Epsom Derby horse race. Director Sarah Gavron’s film Suffragette tells the story of the movement from the point of view of the fictional Maud Watts, who joins the WSPU at the height of its influence, and becomes deeply involved in its activities. It stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Meryl Streep as Pankhurst, and is the first real ‘Oscar bait’ film of 2015.
Him having scored approximately 87 films in 2014, it feels like Alexandre Desplat has been away for a long time. He has been working throughout 2015, mostly on European films – the German film Everything Will Be Fine was released in April, and the Italian film Il Racconto dei Racconti was released in May – but Suffragette is his first 2015 score with a real international profile. It’s interesting how the Frenchman has become the go-to composer for prestige films about British royal and political history; having written the scores for The Queen in 2006 and The King’s Speech in 2010, this is now his third go-around in this mini-genre. Stylistically, it shares a number of similarities with those scores, as well as several other of his more esteemed projects in the historical drama genre. Written for a full orchestra, with notable solos for piano and harp, it features the same precise, crystalline orchestrations for which he has become best known, but conveys a seriousness of purpose that befits a film like this.
In the album’s press, director Gavron notes that, for Suffragette, Desplat “came up with an idea of having this heartbeat, so to speak, going through it. It works on a number of levels for our themes and ideas. We had the idea of a big-scale score that gave you a sense of the drama and the action, but we also wanted to enhance the intimate moments which were just about the interactions between Maud and her son, or Maud and her husband, or a few of the women together.” The director also noted that she was “very keen that the film felt on all sorts of levels very real and visceral and connected. “ She wanted the audience to feel “like they were walking through those streets with Maud and the other women, that the world felt very believable. An important function of the music was to chart the emotional journey, but also reflect the suspense and urgency of those big set pieces where dozens of women were putting themselves in danger because of their activism.”
This heartbeat pulse is prevalent throughout much of the score, but in terms of thematic content, the score is limited to just two. The opening cue, “Suffragette,” begins with the heartbeat pulse, but gradually picks up other instruments as it develops, moving from brass to strings, and more. The main theme itself has an unexpected touch of jazz to it in the way the melody resolves itself in a minor key, and is memorable for its unconventional construction. As one would expect, the Suffragette theme underpins a great deal of the score, re-occurring in several different guises as the women become bolder, but also as they face opposition in the shape of the British authorities, who were at times quite brutal in their responses. In “Surveillance,” for example, the main Suffragette theme is transposed to high, searching strings, with a passacaglia in the basses, before being re-orchestrated for cello and woodwinds in the cue’s second half, giving it a more mysterious mood.
The second theme appears to represent Emmeline Pankhurst herself, and is introduced in “An Army,” which opens with a militaristic percussion tattoo, before moving into Pankhurst’s theme, a harp/pizzicato combo which conveys a sense of cheerful playfulness, but is buoyed with a determination of purpose via the underpinning strings. Pankhurst’s theme returns later in “Hope,” a slightly twisted waltz for piano and woodwinds, augmented by strings, which develops into a more upbeat piece that revisits her theme, but without the militaristic overtones. Finally, in “Votes for Women,” the Pankhurst motif combines with the heartbeat pulse and subtle allusions to the main theme on piano, before grand, noble horns pick up the main theme, performing it with fortitude. Synth pulses like those heard in the score for Birth give the cue a relentless drive, but its lack of flashy, showy, emotional catharsis mirrors the prim and proper demeanor Pankhurst adopted throughout her life, and is appropriately respectful.
Several cues, notably “Beaten,” “Abuse,” “Prison,“ and “Force-Fed,“ underscore the terrible punishments the suffragettes were forced to undergo inside London’s notorious Holloway Prison. Several of the cues feature brutal-sounding dissonances for strings, and deep low end piano writing, dark and menacing. This solemnity is tinged with a heartfelt bitterness, with harps, piano, and strings performing superficially pretty music in juxtaposition to the terrible suffering to make the tragedy seem greater. There is a real undercurrent of tension and despair in “Force-Fed” especially, where buzzing, insect-like string figures and a recurrence of the heartbeat motif make the cue unbearably tense. Throughout these pieces there are vague echoes of the score for The Golden Compass in the staccato piano writing. Later, “Child Taken” revisits this material again, in a ghostly, distant fashion, like someone crying out in anguish but not being able to find a voice.
One or two scenes of action and intense drama feature some scoring similar to that which Desplat wrote for The Ghost Writer a few years ago. “Demonstration,” for example, opens with a stark version of the Suffragette theme on high, scraping strings, underpinned by ticking percussion, giving a sense of anticipation. The Ghost Writer-esque bassoons and propulsive string writing enters in the cue’s second half. Later, “Bombings” features a piano version of the main Suffragette theme, overlaid with strings and harp, but eventually gives way to more militaristic percussion ideas, while a second piano adds a tumultuous action motif, underscoring the female-led guerrilla warfare on the streets of the Empire’s capital.
“Epsom Derby” is the score’s longest set piece, a sequence full of rhythm and movement from chugging strings and agitated harps, giving the cue a sense of anticipation and nervousness that stands in contrast to the excitement and pageantry of the usual Derby crowd. Col legno strings, slap sticks, and the hooting bassoons from The Ghost Writer add to the tension; it builds to a frenzied action finale, featuring the most prominent use of synth pulses, string sustains, and rat-a-tat percussion hits, before ending abruptly at the fateful moment at Tattenham Corner. The score concludes with “Legacy,” a wistful piano performance of the Suffragette theme with jazz inflections on the piano; the lack of major, triumphant resolution confirms that, even with the right to vote having been won, true equality for the women of Britain was still a long way away.
Suffragette is, for the most part, one of Desplat’s more understated works, having more in common with his subdued Euro-drama scores than his flashier and overtly emotional scores for American films. As such, those who often find themselves unable to connect with Desplat’s music will have the same problems here. The main theme, while clearly defined, is not one that will linger in the memory, and its jazz inflections may be surprising and potentially off-putting. The prominence of struck and plucked instruments throughout the score gives it the right sense of tension and nervousness, but any chance for a real emotional high is lost in the process – this isn’t a score that revels in beautiful moments of triumph or despair. Despite all this, I actually like Suffragette quite a lot; it appeals to my dramatic aesthetic, and I have always found Desplat’s pristine orchestrations fascinating. Other Desplat fans will likely have a similar reaction, but I anticipate that many others will be left somewhat cold.
Buy the Suffragette soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Suffragette (2:19)
- An Army (3:22)
- Beaten (3:10)
- Hope (2:23)
- Demonstration (3:28)
- Abuse (1:49)
- Surveillance (2:02)
- Prison (2:34)
- Force-Fed (2:50)
- Bombings (3:26)
- Plotting (1:32)
- Child Taken (3:11)
- Votes for Women (6:26)
- Dreaming of Equity (2:10)
- Epsom Derby (7:15)
- Legacy (1:19)
Running Time: 49 minutes 22 seconds
Back Lot Music (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicholas Charron and Sylvain Morizet. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.