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Alexandre Desplat Talks Embracing Humor Through Music in 'Philomena' Score

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 18, 2013 at 2:10PM

Composer Alexandre Desplat has never scored a comedy before and, although one wouldn't call "Philomena" a comedy, he nonetheless found the witty repartee between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan a lighter change of pace in crafting the music for his fifth collaboration with director Stephen Frears.
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in 'Philomena'

Composer Alexandre Desplat has never scored a comedy before and, although one wouldn't call "Philomena" a comedy, he nonetheless found the witty repartee between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan a lighter change of pace for his fifth collaboration with director Stephen Frears.

"The movie has this duality, which is often the case with Stephen's movies, where the tragedy is very strong but there's also this distant wit," Desplat suggests. "There's this balance between drama and comedy. It's always a better way of delivering a message, whether it's political or social.

"I always try to remember that I love the Italian comedies of the '60s, particularly by Ettore Scola ['Made in Italy']. They would have very deep subjects and always treat them with a sense of humor.When it's tinted with comedy, it makes everything so much stronger somehow."

In the fact-based "Philomena," the Oscar-contending Dench plays the eponymous character, who searches for the son that was forcibly taken away from her 50 years earlier in an Irish convent. She's a firm but sensitive woman who's aided on her journey by a disgraced civil servant and former journalist, Martin Sixsmith (played by Coogan).

Alexandre Desplat
Alexandre Desplat

Desplat delivers a restrained and elegant score, which mostly recedes in the background, comprised primarily of a carnival waltz that reflects Philomena's generous spirit and undying faith.

"Right away, I realized even though it's a duet, it's about Philomena and her journey. Martin's going to help her and find clues, but his [purpose] would be related to the investigation, so I decided to make the central theme related to Philomena as the beating heart of the film. The movie starts with this scene in the fairground and we hear in the background an organ playing a tune and that's mine. When this melody comes back, I'm not sure anyone has noticed that it was in the fairground. Never mind -- it's there, subliminally played. And that's how I've tailored the score with this theme recurring here and there, orchestrated in a way that reminds us of the fairground sound with little recorders and strings. 

"And when Philomena and Martin cross the Atlantic on the plane, you feel this push of adrenaline. And the music also emphasizes that. Every time she's cornered by his cynicism, she jumps out of the box and just kills him. It's very funny always. And she does it in such a genuine way that it's beautiful and pure and that's part of the magic of the film. And it's very inspiring for me. A simplicity that's not simplistic."

Interestingly, when Sixsmith occasionally jogs by himself, Desplat had the challenge of coming up with a theme about movement without going anywhere. "I couldn't be too specific," the composer continues. "I always try to find an intellectual motif as a clue to what I'm looking for."

The score tries to always maintain the sweet and sour feeling of Philomena's gentleness at odds with the dark mystery of the investigation. But there's a climactic moment of lyricism that undercuts Sixsmith's anger, so characteristic of Desplat's soulful style. "We have more empathy somehow for Martin, and, strangely enough, she makes us change our minds because the power of forgiveness is so much stronger than the anger."

This article is related to: Philomena, Immersed In Movies, Alexandre Desplat, Judi Dench, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards Season Roundup, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.