“Philomena” marks the fourth collaboration between director Stephen Frears and composer Alexandre Desplat, after “The Queen” (which earned an Oscar nomination for music), “Cheri” and “Tamara Drewe,” so their starting point has become a familiar one: “He picks the people that he thinks are right and lets them bring their own ideas, their own personality, to the project,” says the Paris-based composer.
So when Desplat chose a surprising approach to the fact-based story about an Irish Catholic woman (Judi Dench) who goes looking for the child she was forced to give up as an unwed mother 50 years earlier, Frears supported him.
“I wanted to write a melody that was memorable, simple without being simplistic,” Desplat says. It's a waltz based on the fairground pipe-organ sound heard by the title character at the moment she committed the sin for which the convent nuns would punish her for years to come. “This tune comes back as a haunting flashback all along, until the very end.”
Frears made one suggestion, however: Something “Hitchcockian” for the investigation conducted by the former BBC journalist (Steve Coogan) who agrees to help her. Desplat added an urgent, rhythmic strings motif that helps propel the story along. But feelings of warmth and delicacy dominate most of “Philomena.”
— Jon Burlingame