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MARY SHELLEY – Amelia Warner

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The British author Mary Shelley, who lived from 1797 to 1851, is best known today for her Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein,’ one of the most influential books of all time, and which has come to be regarded as the first true science fiction story. The romantic drama film Mary Shelley takes an extended look at Shelley’s early life, especially the exalted scholarly circles in which she moved; as the daughter of philosopher William Godwin she had an in-depth classical education, her circle of friends included the poet Lord Byron and the early horror novelist John Polidori, and she was married to poet Percy Shelley, all of whom were significant influences on the story she conceived one stormy night on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1818. The film stars Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, and Tom Sturridge, and is directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, the world’s first female Saudi Arabian film maker, whose previous work includes the critically acclaimed 2012 drama Wadjda.

If the director of Mary Shelley has an interesting back story, then the film’s composer does too. The music is by Amelia Warner, who is one of just a handful of composers to successfully transition from acting to film music. Warner appeared in several fairly high profile films and TV shows as a teenager and young adult during the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Mansfield Park, Quills, Aeon Flux, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, Lorna Doone, Aristocrats, and Waking the Dead. She began her transition to music in 2009 when she wrote and performed the song “Beasts” under the name Slow Moving Millie; her first album, “Renditions,” was released in 2011, and then in 2015 she self-released a classical instrumental EP titled “Arms,” which initiated her film music career. Mary Shelley is just her third score, after the short film Mam in 2010, and the drama feature Mum’s List in 2015, but if her work here is anything to go by, she has the potential to follow in the footsteps of her English female composing contemporaries and make a real splash on the film music scene.

In the album’s press notes, Warner says “We used a lot of synths layered with the orchestra. The real strings layered with electric synths created a strangeness and modernity that I think works well with Mary’s character. We found some amazing musicians and two incredible singers who are a huge part of the score. We used a soprano and a counter tenor and had them sing in a very expressive way. For example, when things start to go a bit crazy in those Geneva scenes, we got the singers to scream and to slide up and down the scale to create an unsettling disorientation. It was a difficult cue and took a while to get right. Voice was really important as were the strings, which are slightly discordant. We also used breath and heartbeat to feel like we are experiencing it as Mary.”

The end result of all this is a perfect musical portrait of a woman whose existence was filled with all the trappings of wealth and privilege, and was enhanced by both Byronic romance and sweeping Gothic melodrama, but which was also punctuated with tragedy, death, and illness. All of this combined and spilled over from her real life into her fantasy life, and fuelled her rich imagination, resulting in one of the most important works of fiction in the history of the English language. There’s a beautiful juxtaposition between the exquisite and the slightly damaged, the dream-like and the real, all of which emanates from the music in the opening cue, “Mary Shelley,” which features a gorgeous, ethereal theme for overlapping female vocals augmented by soft, elegant orchestrations, but which is sometimes enlivened by electronic pulses which give the score a similar feeling to Patrick Doyle’s Great Expectations. This main theme recurs prominently in the subsequent “Kings Cross,” which is unexpectedly upbeat, as well as in the conclusive “Lost in Darkness and Distance,” which is much more optimistic than the title of the cue would suggest.

The second cue, “Storm in The Stars,” is more ethereal, featuring those sliding vocal scales Warner describes in her press notes; it’s a quite unnerving effect, especially when the singers are accompanied by worried-sounding tremolo strings, and it adds a real sense of darkness and near-madness to Shelley’s creative process. Subsequent cues continue these stylistic ideas, notably the unusual “An Unreal Mystery,” in which the sliding scales sound almost like bird calls, while the breathing sounds Warner introduces during the cue’s second half verge on the orgasmic.

Mary’s liaisons with the tortured genius Percy Bysshe Shelley are scored with an altogether more sweeping and beautiful romantic sheen. Cues like “My Sanctuary” and “We Shall Become the Same” dance with lush pianos and strings, and warmly inviting solo violin writing. “Mary’s Decision” uses voices in a different way, and augments then with chimes and glockenspiel to give the music a magical veneer. “Mary Meets Percy” is a score highlight, and feels like music which floats on air – a perfect depiction of the poet’s quixotic nature, gauzy and silken, like the glow of the evening summer peeking through trees into sun-dappled glades. “The Book” represents the pinnacle of this aspect of the score, wherein Warner allows her strings to combine with a prominent harp and almost subliminal electronics, and slowly build to a sweeping finale, where the addition of more prominent percussion gives the piece a sense of destiny and catharsis.

This is counterbalanced by some more melancholy writing for solo piano, voices, and synth drones, which is notable in cues such as “Rights of Woman,” “It’s Time We Left This Place, “Séance,” “Scotland,” and especially “Mary’s Nightmare”, which builds to a quite enormous finale. These cues have quite a lot in common with some of the more popular ‘understated’ composers working in art house cinema at the moment – Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka, Max Richter, Olafur Arnalds, and especially the late Jóhann Jóhannsson – in the way that they take a simple core of instruments and make the smallest adjustments to harmony and melody, resulting in a delightfully gloomy mood. I usually shy away from music like this, but there is something about the way Warner phrases her instruments, something about her writing, that is unexpectedly captivating.

Considering that this is only Amelia Warner’s second feature score, and considering that she has no formal classical musical education and appears to be entirely self-taught, this is an impressive piece of work. Clearly her years as an actress has given her a keen sense of the dramatic – so much so that her music is much more sophisticated and dramatically adept than one would expect from someone with her comparative lack of experience. Although quite a significant amount of the score is concerned more with texture and mood than themes and variations, the moods that Warner creates are a perfect accompaniment for the life of one of literature’s great tragic heroines – a woman whose spark of genius resulted in the creation of a modern Prometheus that has endured in the public’s imagination for almost 200 years.

Buy the Mary Shelley soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mary Shelley (2:02)
  • Storm in The Stars (1:57)
  • My Sanctuary (3:00)
  • Rights of Woman (1:11)
  • Mary’s Decision (2:26)
  • We Shall Become the Same (1:33)
  • It’s Time We Left This Place (1:34)
  • An Unreal Mystery (3:27)
  • Bloomsbury (2:26)
  • Mary Meets Percy (1:57)
  • Kings Cross (1:25)
  • Caged Bird (1:03)
  • Mary’s Nightmare (2:58)
  • The Book (3:23)
  • Séance (1:30)
  • Scotland (1:31)
  • None of This Will Matter (1:14)
  • Clara (2:57)
  • Lost in Darkness and Distance (0:58)

Running Time: 38 minutes 45 seconds

Universal Music Classics/Decca Gold (2018)

Music composed by Amelia Warner. Orchestrations by Nathan Klein and Will Gardner. Recorded and mixed by Nick Taylor. Album produced by Amelia Warner.

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