What’s The Score?: Oscars Week Special – Philomena

Next up in our series of Oscars week specials, I’m taking a look at Alexandre Desplat’s score for Philomena. This is Desplat’s sixth Academy Award nomination for best score, so could this be the one that finally wins it for him? Again, I’ll be looking at a handful of cues rather than the whole score.

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There’s a lot of plot information laid out for us in the first 5 to 10 minutes of the film; character backgrounds and histories are provided through montages and flashbacks including the turning point in Philomena’s own life in 1951 when she falls pregnant after having unprotected sex with a man she meets at a fair. Desplat establishes both Martin and Philomena’s themes in the cues ‘Martin’ and ‘Philomena’ which play in part during these opening scenes to accompany their corresponding characters.  Here is Philomena’s theme:

You can hear the combination of instruments is reminiscent of fairground music, with the plodding bass adding movement, bouncing the piece along under the gentle but insistent syncopated, sometimes whirling melody of the strings. It is simultaneously whimsical and haunting, which to me reflects Philomena’s own nature and how her story progresses – she is a sweet lady with a tragic past, and the piece because more minor oriented as it goes on, ending on a minor chord.  Desplat himself explained in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:

I orchestrated this melody in a way that reminds us, or echoes this sound of a fair organ using recorders, bass clarinets, strings, and harmonics, and it gives an eerie and haunting sound as if this music was a ghost all long in the film, ghosting her.This [melody] is reminding her of what happened and the pain and the loss and actually reminding us, the audience, to share in the pain and the tragedy.

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In contrast, here’s Martin’s theme:

This is the first theme heard, as we see a montage of news clips explaining how his career with the Labour party ended, while Martin takes up running as instructed by his doctor. Strings provide the melody and the bass, with the piano punctuating proceedings with arpeggios and bouncing chords, and towards the middle and towards the end we get harps and plucked strings to break up the somewhat serious feeling. His music is faster paced, alternating between short scalic motifs and sweeping movements all played over steady, repetitive strings playing in fifths and octaves – it leaves scope for the tone to meandre between major and minor if you leave out the third, so this tonality combined with the urgency created in the faster tempo gives us a sense of possibility – for Martin’s career and for his meeting with Philomena.  Interestingly, his theme is interrupted by a Catholic hymn in the scene in the church, and only starts again once he decides to step outside. Perhaps a suggestion that his life is about to be interrupted by Philomena’s?

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The music in this film never overpowers the scene, which given the emotional moments could be tempting for a composer to do. But Desplat’s score never really does that, because the story is understated yet powerful enough that it doesn’t need a swooping, overwrought orchestral score, such as the emotional scene when Anthony is adopted and Philomena calls out in vain to get him back; the music is simple, building with low strings, harmonics and guitar notes as the scene builds to Philomena realising Anthony is about to be taken away, followed by a few slow strings playing part of Philomena’s theme and some light piano notes.

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Most of the material is weaved in and out in the score, used in different variations for different scenes and there’s actually a substantial percentage of the film that has no music at all.  In ‘Quiet Time, To Pete’s’, where Philomena proposes that they go back to England, the music is builds with light but somewhat urgent harp music, the most predominant use of the harp in the score yet – this refers to what is about to happen in the plot, the reveal that Anthony/Michael wore a Celtic harp pin on his lapel as an homage to his heritage, which gives Philomena more hope to continue with her journey to visit her deceased son’s lover. It’s a clever, if not obvious inclusion in the score.

While it’s not the most dramatic or innovative score out of all the nominees this year, I can see how Desplat’s soundtrack earned its place on the list. It would be great for him to finally win after so many nominations and such a fantastic body of work, but like Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, I don’t think this is his best work and so this probably won’t be his year.

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