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THEIR FINEST – Rachel Portman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the 1940s, at the height of World War II, the British Ministry of Information made numerous morale-boosting propaganda films intended to help raise the spirits of the public during the time of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, extolling the bravery and sacrifice of the lads fighting Nazis the overseas. Their Finest, which is directed by Lone Scherfig from a novel by Lissa Evans, is a comedy-drama which recounts the fictional creation of one of these films from the point of view of Catrin Cole, an aspiring young writer-director whose talents are being squandered by the Ministry because of her gender. The film stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin, Bill Nighy as the star of the film Ambrose Hillard, features Sam Claflin, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, and Eddie Marsan in supporting roles, and has a score by that most English of film composers, Rachel Portman.

Portman has had a little bit of a career renaissance over the last couple of years, having scored several comparatively high profile films, notably the Emmy-winning Bessie, Race, Despite the Falling Snow, and A Dog’s Purpose. As her career has progressed since the early 1990s, Portman has developed one of the most distinctive and easily-identifiable personal styles of any working composer, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, she has a wholly unique sound, a clear point of view that identifies each note as being distinctly hers. On the other hand, she does tend to write music which sounds basically the same across multiple projects, irrespective of the film she is scoring. Beyond the occasional concession of orchestration to address a specific geographic location or time period, you always know what you’re going to get with a Rachel Portman score: light and elegant strings, pretty woodwind accents, and a general tone of quintessential Englishness. Their Finest, as one might expect, follows the Portman formula almost exactly.

Portman describes her score for Their Finest as “a mixture of orchestral wistful, thematic, at times up tempo underscore, with themes for Catrin, the protagonist, and for the war, as well as the score for the film-within-the-film, ‘The Nancy Starling.’” Catrin’s theme is the most prominent identity within the score, being the first thing heard in the opening cue, “Catrin Goes To the Ministry.” Most people will fall for this version of the theme – sprightly, purposeful string figures and light woodwinds that capture the optimism and enthusiasm of the character – and its subsequent statements in this manner, in cues like “Writing Uncle Frank” and “Ambrose Is Cast,” are equally delightful.

However, to Portman’s credit, she varies the theme enough for it to be interesting: the aforementioned “Writing Uncle Frank” employs a re-orchestration for solo trumpet, while both “Kiss” and “On the Dunes” re-work the theme as a love theme for Catrin and dashing movie producer Buckley (Sam Claflin), featuring especially notable solo piano, trumpet, and cello writing. The conclusive “Make It a Happy One” also features several variations on Catrin’s theme, ranging from more intimate solo violin statements to a warm, ebullient, rousing finale for piano and orchestra.

The War Theme, as one would expect, tends to be darker and more serious, with a minimalist motif anchored by a piano and dulcimer playing in unison. Cues like “Heavy Rescue,” “Buckley Talks About His Dad,” and “Tower Falls” feature the War Theme prominently, adding a touch of necessary poignancy and drama to a film set in one of the most turbulent times in recent British history. Similarly, the score for the “Nancy Starling” film-within-a-film is dramatic, featuring prominent harp, sinister strings, snare drum raps, and brass flourishes with dramatic intent, before rising to a warm and noble conclusion that celebrates the victories of the boys in uniform.

A couple of other pieces offer some sorrowful reflection on loss and death, with cues like “I’d Miss You,” “Catrin Grieves,” and “Mortuary” featuring some especially strong flute lines and poignant cello writing. Varese Sarabande’s brief album is rounded out by a trio of period songs, newly recorded with Portman providing piano accompaniment, including Stephanie Hyam and Claudia Jessie performing They Can’t Black Out the Moon” in the style of The Andrews Sisters, and actor Bill Nighy performing the old Scottish folk ballad “Will You Go, Lassie, Go”.

Anyone who has enjoyed any of Rachel Portman’s tuneful, emotional orchestral scores will find Their Finest to be to their liking; I found myself being reminded of scores like Belle, The Duchess, and occasionally Hart’s War as the album unfolded, all of which are wholly positive comparisons. However, others may find themselves being disappointed by yet another Rachel Portman score that sounds exactly like you expect every Rachel Portman score to sound. At this point in her career, it’s clearly an exercise in futility to expect anything else; she does what she does and it’s pointless to criticize her for that. At a time when thematic lyricism in mainstream American film scores is at an all-time low, one must again look beyond Hollywood to Europe to find this sort of writing, and those who crave that sort of elegance will find large parts of Their Finest to be appealing. Anyone yearning for innovation, however, should look elsewhere.

Buy the Their Finest soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Catrin Goes To the Ministry (0:57)
  • I’d Miss You (2:02)
  • Catrin Grieves (1:47)
  • Writing Uncle Frank (2:03)
  • Kiss (2:03)
  • Nancy Starling, Part 1 (2:29)
  • Nancy Starling, Part 2 (2:45)
  • Catrin Rewrites the Ending (1:01)
  • Heavy Rescue (1:20)
  • On the Dunes (1:20)
  • Ambrose Is Cast (0:54)
  • They Can’t Black Out the Moon (written by Bob Dale, Sonny Miller, and Art Strauss, performed by Stephanie Hyam and Claudia Jessie) (1:28)
  • Mortuary (1:27)
  • Buckley Talks About His Dad (1:39)
  • Tower Falls (2:29)
  • Boarding House (1:39)
  • Make It a Happy One (2:29)
  • Red Sails In the Sunset (written by Wilhelm Grozs and Jimmy Kennedy, performed by Charlie Kunz and The Casani Club Orchestra) (3:10)
  • Will You Go, Lassie, Go (written by Francis Peake, performed by Bill Nighy) (2:07)

Running Time: 35 minutes 21 seconds

Varese Sarabande (2017)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by Joris Bartsch Buhle. Performed by The Berlin Session Orchestra. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley and Rachel Portman. Recorded and mixed by Tobias Lehmann. Edited by Christoph Bauschinger. Album produced by Rachel Portman .

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