In the 1950s, Philomena Lee was a naive Irish teenager who got pregnant, gave birth in a convent, and was forced by the nuns to sign away her parental rights. The 2013 film Philomena is based on what happened five decades later, when Lee went looking for her son with the help of a journalist. Directed by Stephen Frears and starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena is up for several Academy Awards, including one in an unlikely category.
French composer Alexandre Desplat has scored dozens of films, across an astonishing range of styles and genres: Zero Dark Thirty, The King's Speech, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, two Harry Potter films. Compared to those efforts, his Oscar-nominated score for Philomena is strikingly spare, often falling silent in the moments where the drama is most potent. Desplat says the gravitas of the true story, contrasted with the lightness and humor that Dench brought to her role, made the score one of the hardest he's ever had to write.
"When I saw the film for the first time, it got me so emotional that I when I went back to my studio, I started trying to find what could reflect Judi Dench's character: This fragile, over-70-years-old lady who shows much more strength than she seems to have, who has had a hidden secret for 50 years, and who is capable of forgiveness," Desplat says. "It's difficult to imagine how music can relate to that."
As he tells NPR's Arun Rath, Desplat approached the challenge by framing his score around a persistent theme: one that follows Philomena throughout her journey, changing as she does, and yet respects the story's powerful moments of silence. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.