Some actors fascinate me so much, I’d watch them read the phone book. Peter O’Toole, for example. There are certain film composers that occupy the musical equivalent for me as well. Rachel Portman is one of them. Ever since WHERE ANGELS FEAR TO TREAD in 1991, I’ve drawn water and sustenance from the Portman well over and over again. In an industry increasingly ruled by overdubs and a wall of sound, Portman’s delicate, classically tinged orchestrations beg the ear to stop for a moment and listen carefully. Portman’s latest project, NEVER LET ME GO, once again demonstrates her gift for creating haunting melodies and emotion with an air of simplicity and out of so little.
Based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, the film stars Carey Mulligan (who showed up at the screening I went to), Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley as three childhood friends who must face some devastating choices over the course of their brief lives in a world that doesn’t, yet so easily could, exist. That description is deliberately vague so as not to give away certain key plot points. While I had certain issues with the film withholding what I thought were vital pieces of information, it’s an understated take on depressing subject matter, with three wonderful performances, especially by Mulligan and Garfield.
Surprisingly, Portman’s score is given a prominent role in the film, front and center at all times. That’s not to say that the music is constant or that it overwhelms the film. Because of a certain coldness of tone and an arms-length distance in a story where the characters are resigned to their fate, the music must generate the emotion without going overboard. I can’t say Portman’s score always scores in that regard, but it’s lovely work nonetheless.
In her FSM Online interview with Tim Greiving, Portman said the bulk of the score is contained in the “strings, piano, and more strings.” Throughout the score, yearning violin and cello solos cry out in pain, searching for love in a world where love is not an option and meaning from truth has been distorted and withheld. The solo lines sit on a bed of sustained string chords that seldom change, as if the music was fighting an internal battle against itself, already dead inside.
Oscillating piano and harp intervals contribute a solid, yet precarious, background to the string lines. Only occasionally does Portman truly give herself over to the unspoken darkness that runs through the film, in cues like “Evening Visit,” with its sustained violins hovering over haunting minor-key piano arpeggios. Most of the themes are set against a halting 3/4 meter, embodying the characters’ slow-moving waltz toward death.
Portman’s score is a quiet yet emotional listen, especially if you end it before the last two tracks, with the school children’s song and the ’60s doo-wop ditty that plays a significant role in the film. The music obviously takes on more gravitas once you’ve seen the film, but you don’t need to see it to appreciate Portman’s work. More audio clips can be found at Screen Archives.
Many have imitated Portman’s style, but few composers write with the same deftness of orchestration and emotional transparency. Though I still question whether or not the score was entirely effective in the film, it is a haunting reminder of Portman’s unique musical gift.