Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the things the British do very well is make old fashioned romantic dramas. There have been dozens of them over the years, often with oddball titles, starring young starlets in period dress, who are swept off their feet by a dashing chap who is invariably coming back from, or heading off to, a war. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those films; it’s adapted from a popular novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and is directed by Mike Newell, who is an old hand at this sort of thing. It stars Lily James as Juliet, a successful author in post-war London who takes up an offer to visit Guernsey – an island in the English Channel – after she receives a letter from the titular society, inviting her to speak. Upon arrival, Juliet soon becomes involved in a romance with a handsome and rugged farmer (Michael Huisman), despite being engaged to an American GI back in the London, while simultaneously getting drawn into a mystery involving the disappearance of a young girl named Elizabeth years previously. The reason this is especially noteworthy is because Guernsey was one of the only places in the UK occupied by Nazi forces during World War II, and Elizabeth disappeared at the height of the occupation.

One of the other things the British do very well is employ female composers to score their movies. Both Rachel Portman and Anne Dudley, the only female Oscar winners, are English, while composers as varied as Debbie Wiseman, Mica Levi, and Jocelyn Pook have made their marks on both the big and small screens, continuing a tradition that stretches all the way back to Angela Morley and Delia Derbyshire in the 1960s and 70s. The newest name to add to that list is Alexandra Harwood, who since graduating from both the Royal College of Music and the Juilliard School, has scored dozens of short films, TV shows, and documentaries, as well as undertaken various commissions for concerts and for the theatre. However, for most people reading this, this score will be their first experience of her music – for all intents and purposes, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is her theatrical movie debut.

On this evidence, Harwood has the potential to go far. I hesitate to make comparisons between her and people like Rachel Portman and Debbie Wiseman, because they’re a bit too easy, but the truth of the matter is that Harwood’s music does share tonal similarities with those pioneers, as well as fellow British contemporaries such as George Fenton or Patrick Doyle. She has that immediately identifiable ‘BBC costume drama’ sound that has accompanied a dozen Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte adaptations over the years, and which I have always adored. In terms of orchestration, it’s written for a string orchestra with additional emphasis on piano and woodwinds, and in tone it is for the most part gently romantic, but the kick comes with the inclusion of some rather unexpected and occasionally quite harsh electronic tones which appear to relate to the looming presence the Nazis forced onto the idyllic titular island.

The opening cue, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” appears to be a suite of the score’s main themes, and it is beautifully put together. Having not seen the film I’m not going to attempt to try to identify each theme conceptually, but Harwood moves her music dexterously through the orchestra; it begins gently, elegantly, a little moodily, with a feather-light theme that dances between harp, piano, and strings, underpinned with light chimes and a whimsical touch. Eventually it shifts into something a little more solid and forthright, with a stronger string section, but still retaining that air of refined beauty, before becoming quite dramatic, with the music being underpinned with some almost war-like percussion. The piece’s finale features some nimble but a little bittersweet piano writing, which sounds lovely when heard in lush combination with the strings, while the almost subliminal drone wash gives it a dreamy ambiance.

Much of the rest of the score oscillates between different statements of these core thematic ideas, and several cues stand out as being especially noteworthy. The opening “Prelude” begins with a reprise of the slightly melancholy piano figures from the end of the suite, but quickly becomes much darker, with a harsh electronic pulse, low piano chords, militaristic percussion, and cimbalom, which in combination appears to be the first performance of a recurring Nazi motif. “Dawsey’s First Letter” marks the first appearance in the score of another recurring texture – those of soft, cooing female vocals – which eventually give way to a playful scherzo, featuring an array of flighty, classical string figures offset by hooting woodwinds and ticking woodblock percussion.

“The First Winter” is especially lovely, and is a piece which again begins with those moody strings and electronics, conveying a sort of harshness which speaks again to the darkness of Guernsey’s Nazi occupation period. However, as the cue develops, it gradually melts into spring through the inclusion of lighter orchestrations, and warmer chord progressions. Juliet’s journey to Guernsey is underscored by two cues, “Across the Sea” and “Arrival.” The former is marked by a gorgeous piece of undulating piano writing, filled with expressive crescendos for strings and woodwinds, and notably appealing cellos, which sound optimistic, almost buoyant. The latter provides the first notable appearance from Harwood’s brass section, as warm and welcoming French horns combine with the vocal ideas to herald Juliet’s first moments on the island.

Once Juliet is on the island the story – and the score – splits into two, with one part of it speaking to the hesitant romantic relationship that develops between Juliet and the farmer, Dawsey, while the other part speaks both to the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s disappearance and Juliet’s determination to uncover the truth of what happened to her, as well as to Juliet’s own experiences of wartime tragedy. Cues like “Goodbye To Their Children” and “Amelia’s Loss” are actually quite dark, while “Looking For Truth” adopts a tone of noble, solemn determination, with rhythmic writing for strings, piano, and snares. “Elizabeth and Christian” has a sort of faraway, dream-like mood achieved through the prominent use of voices and synths, and “The Typewriter Theme” uses oppressive-sounding string figures, hooting woodwind textures, pianos, and a prominent woodblock, which is clearly intended to mimic the rhythmic tick of typewriter keys, and speaks to the literary cornerstone of the story.

Meanwhile, in cues such as “At the Bottom of the Sea,” “Juliet and Kit,” “Into the Night,” and “Older Than Time,” Harwood allows her romantic side to emerge fully in a series of pretty, light, whimsical cues which perfectly capture the sound of a very English courtship – it’s not too sweepingly lush or overbearing, but contains just enough emotional depth and heartfelt expression to be effective at conveying the characters’ subtle emotions. I’m especially fond of the hypnotic, rhythmic cello and xylophone writing in “Into the Night.”

The finale comprises two cues, and it is in these moments where Harwood finally throws off the shackles of stiff-upper-lipped decorum and embraces unashamed romanticism. “Written For You” has more than a hint of Trevor Jones to it, especially when Harwood makes prominent use of sprightly guitars accented with dancing piccolos above an orchestral wash. The conclusive “Juliet and Dawsey” is just beautiful, with a fully expressive performance of the main love theme for piano and strings, which brings the album to a satisfying close.

Anyone who has an affinity for English romantic drama scores – especially those by aforementioned composers like Rachel Portman, Debbie Wiseman, George Fenton, Patrick Doyle, Trevor Jones, or even people like Dario Marianelli – will get a lot of mileage out of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Scores like this have always appealed to my English sensibility; the subtlety and comparative restraint of the emotions go all the way back to Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson, and Brief Encounter, and perfectly capture the essence of wartime romance, where feelings can’t spill over too much due to the fear of impropriety inherent in all Brits. Musically, Alexandra Harwood clearly has an impressive dramatic sense, as well as a knack for coaxing elegant harmonies and instrumental combinations out of her orchestra. If one was to make a couple of criticisms of the score it would be to say that it perhaps gets a little repetitive during its middle section, and that the various individual themes are not well defined or distinct enough for them to be clearly identifiable, even after several listens, but these are minor quibbles in what is otherwise an impressive mainstream film music debut.

Buy the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (5:36)
  • Prelude (2:48)
  • Dawsey’s First Letter (2:27)
  • The First Winter (4:29)
  • Across The Sea (1:48)
  • Arrival (2:39)
  • Goodbye To Their Children (2:10)
  • Amelia’s Loss (3:02)
  • Looking For Truth (1:41)
  • Elizabeth and Christian (1:55)
  • At the Bottom of the Sea (1:37)
  • Juliet and Kit (1:57)
  • Into the Night (3:15)
  • Older Than Time (2:09)
  • Home (2:02)
  • The Typewriter Theme (1:25)
  • Written For You (2:38)
  • Juliet and Dawsey (3:09)

Running Time: 46 minutes 56 seconds

Decca Classics (2018)

Music composed by Alexandra Harwood. Conducted by Geoff Alexander. Orchestrations by Alexandra Harwood and Geoff Alexander. Recorded and mixed by Nick Taylor. Edited by Mark Willsher. Album produced by Alexandra Harwood.

  1. Scott Weber
    June 7, 2018 at 10:17 am

    As always, I have to thank you for introducing me to another new composer who I would likely never have found…keep it up!

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: