Music In Film...Rachel Portman
Welcome to the sixth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on the collaboration between the director and the composers/song writers who create the film soundtracks. .
The link to the introduction of this series and the first installment (Steven Spielberg) appears below:
British composer, Rachel Portman, is a celebrated player and leading lady in a male-dominated industry. Portman broke through this glass ceiling by scoring over 50 films and winning numerous awards. She was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Musical or Comedy Score for Emma in 1996, and the first to be honored with the BMI Richard Kirk Award in 2010 for her significant contributions to music in film.
Portman’s love affair with music started at an early age; she began scoring at the age of 13. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Rachel composes on a piano and rarely uses electronic equipment such as synthesizers to augment her film scores. She is best known for her lush orchestrations, and imaginative use of piano and strings in the romance/comedy film genre.
Music is the emotional glue, so to speak, in any film; it can affect our emotions before the idea of the actual characters. This is especially true with the adaptation of a novel. When created intuitively, the musical notes lift the words from page. We are conscious, but not aware of, the music that helps to carry us on the author’s journey through the combined vision of the director and composer.
Portman is a master at enhancing the dramatic story, on-screen, and has collaborated with many directors. You may recognize some of her work in such films as Emma, Chocolat; The Legend of Bagger Vance (featured in the Robert Redford installment of this series); The Lake House; The Manchurian Candidate; Mona Lisa Smile...
...and a few that might surprise you:
“Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea: "One table-spoonful to be taken at bedtime.”
--- The Tale of Peter Rabbit
"I wish to hatch my own eggs; I will hatch them all by myself," quacked Jemima Puddle-duck."
--The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
Growing up in the conservatism of the Victorian England, Beatrix Potter never attended school and was exceptionally shy. Rather than focus her energies on finding a suitable husband she became an iconic figure in the literary world. Her “little books” thrived and enabled her to become financially independent. “Thank goodness I was never sent to school,” she said. “It would have rubbed off some of my originality.” As a child, Beatrix taught herself to draw with infinite imagination, creating timeless classics over the years that would delight readers for over a century.
In Miss Potter, director Chris Noonan takes us through various chapters from the life of this extraordinary woman, wonderfully portrayed by Renee Zellweger: Her childhood; her relationship with fledgling publisher, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor); and her work as a conservationist. Potter’s initial publishing of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" leads to a courtship with Warne who supports her work with great enthusiasm. In time, they fall in love and become engaged -- despite the protests of Potter's mother and father.
The soundtrack to Miss Potter is an orchestral score composed by Nigel Westlake and Rachel Portman. The beautiful, lush and playful melodies reflect the context of Potter's amazing life and the creative animation of her beloved characters as they leap from the page and into our hearts.
The Cider House Rules
“Goodnight, you princes of Maine…you kings of New England.”
(Dr. Larch bids the orphaned lads goodnight, every evening, at the orphanage.)
John Irving scripted the screen adaptation of his novel, The Cider House Rules. Directed by Lasse Hallström, this story of self-discovery and optimism follows two main characters during the WW II years: Dr. Wilbur Larch (Sir Michael Caine) is the kindhearted founder of the St. Cloud's orphanage in Maine. He also provides safe abortions for women who are in the early stages of pregnancy. (Proponents of the Comstock Act were still waging war against any legal use of female contraceptive devices. Women were dying as a result of “back alley” abortions.) Dr. Larch teaches the orphaned Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) his medical expertise over the years. However, Homer has moral objections to illegal abortions and refuses to assist in any of these procedures.
Lt. Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd) arrives at St. Cloud one day with his girlfriend, Candy (Charlize Theron) who is seeking an abortion. Eager to venture forth into the world, Homer departs St. Cloud with the couple. Wally’s mother owns an apple orchard and cider mill, and Homer is soon recruited to work the fall harvest when Wally is transferred overseas to fight in the war.
The Worthington’s cider house has a list of rules which the seasonal field pickers are obliged to follow. The rules are actually a metaphor for adhering to existing laws and prevailing opinions that often fail to deal with life's complexities. During Homer’s journey of self-discovery, his moral code is tested in ways he never anticipated. He and Candy become close during Wally’s absence and embark on an affair. In addition, one of the teenage migrant pickers becomes pregnant after being molested by her father.
Portman’s sumptuous, Oscar nominated score reflects the innocence of those times and the stunning New England countryside. Despite the seriousness of themes, the music is rooted in the optimism of the screenplay that heralds the conclusion of the film...and those “princes of Maine and kings of New England.” It is one of the most beautiful melodic scores ever created.
"Love is or it isn't, Paul D. Thin love ain't no love at all."
(Sethe's remark to Paul D. when he tells her that her love is "too thick.")
Beloved was adapted from Toni Morrison’s novel; winner of both the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize in literature. Brilliantly directed by Jonathan Demme, the story begins in the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey), a former slave, and her teenage daughter, Denver (Yada Beener), live in a house that is haunted by a malevolent ghost -- the spirit of Sethe’s deceased, two-year-old daughter. They live an isolated existence until a man from Sethe's past, Paul D. (Danny Glover), pays a visit. (While pregnant with Denver, Sethe had fled the oppressive cruelty of Sweet Home, a plantation in Kentucky where Paul D. was also a slave.)
Paul D.’s presence revives events from the past that have been locked away in Sethe’s memory for nearly two decades. After a violent confrontation with the ghost, Paul D. moves in with Sethe and Denver. The troublesome phantom disappears. Shortly thereafter, a strange young woman (Thandie Newton) who calls herself Beloved arrives at Sethe’s house. Childlike and seemingly lost from reality, Sethe and Denver are drawn to her and take her into their home. Strange events soon begin to reoccur.
The story unfolds by combining elements from the present with the past through a series of random flashbacks of the major characters…”like an unpleasant dream from a troubling sleep.” This profound and complex film follows the struggles of the main characters’ ability to love, combined with the overwhelming and inescapable effects of slavery.
The musical scoring marked a departure from Portman’s usual sound. Using a few instruments and an African choir, voices of harmony and dissonance create a stunning musical tapestry that respects the somber and thoughtful tone of Morrison’s brilliant novel.
"Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that self-preservation is the first law of nature."
In Oliver, director Roman Polanski provides audiences with his own interpretation of this Dickens classic. Oliver Twist (Barney Clark) is an innocent young orphan in Victorian England who works in a depressing workhouse operated by a miser, Mr. Bumble (Jeremy Swift). When Oliver dares to ask for more food, he is given over to an undertaker who treats him cruelly. Preferring life on the streets, Oliver runs away to London to make his fortune. He meets a pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Harry Eden), who belongs to a gang of young thieves that are trained to steal for their master, Fagin (Ben Kingsley).
In Oliver Twist, Dickens indicts with unforgiving satire the societal impact of industrialism on 19th-century England. He grew up in a world of workhouses, and people who preyed upon and abused children for their own benefit and greed. It is his voice we hear throughout the film that is detailed with adventure and visuals that portray this life with stunning realism.
Polanski wanted to present Oliver as a quirky character whose innocence survives amidst the moral decadence of that society. In a sense, Polanski and Portman “meet Dickens in the middle” with a wonderful score that is filled with dogged adventure and a rebellious spirit.
The Human Stain
“Coleman, you think like a prisoner. You're white as snow and you think like a slave.”
The Human Stain was directed by Robert Benton. It is a deeply complex and moving story based on Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth's best-selling novel. Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is a classics professor at a fictional college in New England. False accusations of racial discrimination are brought against him, thereby ending his career. His wife suffers a fatal stroke during the investigation. Furious with the college he blames for his wife’s death, Coleman asks his neighbor, author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), to write a book about the events. The character of Nathan narrates part of the story.
After the tragic death of his wife and departure from the college, Coleman begins a scandalous affair with the beautiful and deeply troubled Faunia Farley. Faunia is a local cleaning woman who fled from a world of privilege and an abusive stepfather at the age of 14. Their relationship is further threatened by Farley’s abusive ex-husband, Lester (Ed Harris), an alcoholic Vietnam vet with PTSD. Lester unjustly blames her for the death of their two small children during a fire.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Coleman has led a life of deception. He is a light-skinned African American who has passed himself off as white and Jewish since the 1940’s, completely severing all ties with his mother and family in the process. By fleeing his past, he thought to gain more control over his independence and personal freedom in order to fulfill his ambitions. His rebellion exiles him from the truth and the very freedoms he desires. He does not share this secret with anyone until he meets and falls in love with Faunia.
Rachel Portman collaborated with Benton to create a beautifully haunting score. Her signature piano and strings shift between minor keys to convey the somber, introverted nature of the story. Intensely personal, the musical phrases repeat a yearning for love and tenderness in a world of prejudice and cruelty that secludes the heart.
In closing, I wanted to express my apologies for omitting such films as Emma and The Manchurian Candidate. Several hubs would be needed, at minimum, to encompass Portman's brilliant and impressive body of work.
The next and final installment of this series will feature directors Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, and their collaboration with German composer Hans Zimmer ((Rain Man; The Lion King; Pirates of the Caribbean; Gladiator; Inception; The Dark Knight Rises).
All Music; Rachel Portman Biography; Artist Biography by Joseph Stevenson; December 5, 2012
Written content has been copyrighted, 2014, by Genna East. All rights Reserved. Said copyrights do not extend to the videos that are utilized solely for learning purposes.
More by this Author
Welcome to the final installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film.
Welcome to the fifth installment in a series of hub articles dedicated to music in film. Each article focuses on one director, and the composers and songwriters he or she has collaborated with over the years.