Home > Reviews > RED JOAN – George Fenton

RED JOAN – George Fenton

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Imagine the situation. You’re at home, visiting with your elderly grandmother, when there’s a knock at the door. In come a bunch of policemen, accompanied by members of the secret service, who then arrest the kindly old lady and take her away. It turns out that, in her youth, your sweet nana was actually an undercover agent for the Soviet Union, and over the course of several decades she sold nuclear secrets to the communists, all the while maintaining her cover as a sweet, innocent secretary for a metalworking research company. It sounds far-fetched, but this new film Red Joan is based on the actual life of Melita Norwood, who was a KGB spy in the UK for more than 30 years, prior to her eventual arrest in 1999, when she was 87 years old. The film is directed by the multi-award winning Broadway and West End theater director Trevor Nunn, and stars Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson as the present-day Joan and Joan in flashback.

The score for Red Joan is by the great George Fenton, who spent several years away from the mainstream film scoring world, but has returned with a vengeance this year. Red Joan is his second major score of 2019, after Cold Pursuit, and while Cold Pursuit was something of an unusual departure in terms of sound and style, Red Joan is very much within the period-drama comfort zone that so many people fell in love with during his 1980s and 1990s heyday. Whereas Cold Pursuit was quirky and electronically experimental, Red Joan is much more conventionally orchestral, serious and downbeat, but with more warmth and much more of a ‘traditional’ film music feel. Tonally, it reminds me of some of his restrained period drama scores like 84 Charing Cross Road and A Handful of Dust, as well as some of the more approachable music he writes for the films of Ken Loach.

In talking about the score, Fenton says that he regards Red Joan as a personal score, “by which I mean personal to the character of Joan. My aim was to find a tonal language that sat well with the story of Joan in the 1930s but which never lost the sense of the story being told and remembered by the older Joan. A balance between the immediacy of young Joan’s experience and old Joan’s recollections. My hope is that even when heard away from the film that the music evokes the narrative of this extraordinary story.”

The score is bookended by a main theme, the “Red Joan Theme,” which is pretty but also slightly sinister, with a main piano melody backed by moody strings. The idea behind it seems to be to portray Joan as a woman whose outward persona is non-threatening and pleasant, but who is inwardly hiding dark secrets. What’s interesting about the score proper is that Fenton, for the most part, never really presents the theme verbatim; he sort of skirts around it, hints at it, plays three or four of the notes but then sends them off in a different direction, or hides the theme underneath other instruments doing something else entirely. It’s frustrating from a listening point of view, but it makes sense dramatically – Joan is, by nature, duplicitous, never fully revealing her true self, so it stands to reason that her musical identity would remain at least partially hidden too.

The music is performed by a fairly standard symphony orchestra, mostly with emphasis on strings and woodwinds, but with several standout solo moments for piano, harp, and some unexpected electronics. Several cues leave an impression. “You’re Under Arrest” offers several variations on Joan’s theme that move from harp to strings to unexpectedly light woodwinds, changing the dramatic impetus each time – sometimes it is ominous and downbeat, while elsewhere it is slightly defiant-sounding, even noble. A more innocent version of Joan’s theme appears in “Back to Cambridge,” where it is arranged for harp, string, and piano textures, and features a lovely passage for oboes and chimes in the cue’s second half. Later, it is elegant and rhythmic, and features a subtle chorus. “Good at Drawing” is darker and more emotional, with especially heavy cellos.

Things change somewhat with “Chadwick’s Arrival,” which is martial and imposing, featuring snare drum tattoos and prominent militaristic brass. “Making Land Tomorrow” is subtly and unexpectedly romantic, with higher register strings representing her on-again-off again relationship with Leo, the roguishly handsome German-Jewish immigrant ho recruits her to the communist cause. The subsequent “Maybe One Day” is similarly lightweight, featuring optimistic and flighty pianos and strings. It is in these cues that Fenton’s romantic persona emerges for the only time, and as such these cues are likely to appeal to fans of his approachable romance scores the most.

Things change again in “The University,” which begins with an ominous variation on Joan’s theme for viola backed by harp, but then gradually picks up a subtle choir and the first hint of electronics. From here until the end of the score, Fenton enters ‘espionage thriller’ mode, with much more emphasis on drama and subterfuge, and with orchestrations to match. “Hiroshima” builds to a dramatic conclusion with heavier brass, more subtle electronics, and no small amount of tragedy in the strings. “Agent Lotto” is similarly urgent, sometimes a little dissonant, with more electronics alongside an orchestral part built around a bed of pulsating, choppy strings. “Inspection” uses flutes in nervous ways, along with a heartbeat-style pulse and off-kilter pianos. “The Locket” brings back the mechanical sounding electronic drones, which sound very eerie when heard in combination with Joan’s theme on the piano.

Variations on Joan’s theme runs through much of the finale – with a dark nostalgia in “Photo Secrets,” on morose deconstructed pianos in “Special Branch,” and accompanied by undulating strings and harp in “I’m Not a Traitor,” which builds to a tragic and emotional climax. “Max In Jail” offers a bittersweet finale, prior to the “End Titles,” which comprise several extended take on the score’s main thematic ideas, but performed with a more lush and bold aspect as the music takes center stage as the credits roll.

There is a lot to like about Red Joan, which clearly shows that George Fenton has lost none of the dramatic flair or emotional sensitivity that endeared him to so many people during the 1980s and 90s. However, anyone expecting a clear return to his heyday may have to temper their expectations a little. Red Joan is a very subtle score, which is as light on thematic depth as it is strong in atmosphere. It could be that this is simply a sign of the times, where directors are no longer asking for the type of prominent emotional outbursts that Fenton often provided back in the day. But whatever the case may be, be warned that Red Joan is not the return to the glory of old that Fenton fans may have been craving. Red Joan is dramatically sound, instrumentally strong, and emotionally appropriate, but it’s also very quiet, very understated, and is unlikely to leave you with a lingering memory of a powerful central theme.

Buy the Red Joan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Red Joan Theme (Prelude) (0:45)
  • You’re Under Arrest (2:47)
  • Back to Cambridge (2:45)
  • The Ghost of Matter (2:22)
  • My Little Comrade (2:01)
  • The Tower (1:57)
  • Restraining Order (2:16)
  • Good at Drawing (2:43)
  • Leo’s Arrest (1:13)
  • Chadwick’s Arrival (1:58)
  • Making Land Tomorrow (1:39)
  • Maybe One Day (2:08)
  • The University (2:33)
  • Hiroshima (2:25)
  • Agent Lotto (1:54)
  • Inspection (2:27)
  • The Locket (1:50)
  • Photo Secrets (2:23)
  • Leo’s Destiny (2:54)
  • Special Branch (1:49)
  • Two Copies (1:25)
  • I’m Not a Traitor (1:56)
  • Max In Jail (2:47)
  • End Titles (5:16)
  • Red Joan Theme (Postlude) (0:40)

Running Time: 54 minutes 56 seconds

Moviescore Media MMS-19016 (2019)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by Julian Kershaw. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Edited by Samuel Pegg. Album produced by George Fenton and Mikael Carlsson.

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