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‘Darkest Hour’ Composer on Helping to Bring Joe Wright’s Thunderous Vision of Churchill to Life

"Pride and Prejudice” earned composer Dario Marianelli an Oscar nomination; his fifth collaboration with director Joe Wright deserves to earn him another.

4106_D013_00374_CROP(ctr) Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

“Darkest Hour”

Jack English

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Joe Wright, the British maximalist behind some of the most audacious screen adaptations in recent years, is as visually expressive a director as they come, and yet it’s hard to imagine watching his films with the sound off. Removing the music from any of his movies would be like ripping a bandage off an unhealed wound — impossible to remove without taking off some raw flesh. The scores that Wright commissions aren’t merely ornamental; they’re not just a garnish layered over a finished piece of work for added effect. On the contrary, the compositions are utterly inextricable from the films themselves, like a second script that weaves into the first one and knots them both together.

Needless to say, that approach could make things pretty difficult for a director who doesn’t write their own music. Fortunately for Wright, he doesn’t have to — he’s always has the great Italian composer Dario Marianelli to do that for him. The two men happened to meet at a time when both of their careers were building towards their first crescendoes (Wright was preparing to make the leap from TV to movies, while Marianelli was looking to parlay his work on “The Brothers Grimm” into some more high-profile gigs), and they immediately settled into a rare harmony that has seen them become one of the most vital director-musician duos in modern cinema, right up there with Todd Haynes and Carter Burwell or Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood.

Their first collaboration, 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” earned Marianelli an Oscar nomination; their fifth film together, this fall’s “Darkest Hour,” deserves to earn him another. The breathless historical biopic focuses on the grim weeks after Winston Churchill assumed power over Great Briton and desperately steered the country away from collapse. Marianelli’s music runs through the story like the blood in its veins.

Wright and Marianelli are a singularly effective team, and it’s not just because the movies are good, or that the music is beautiful. No, the reason they work together so well is that their movies are so good in part because the music is beautiful, and the music sounds so beautiful in part because the movies are good. The two are mellifluously entangled together by design.

On that note, it’s telling that Marianelli, who spoke to IndieWire via email, cited a certain scene from “Pride & Prejudice” when asked to name a favorite moment from their films: “It’s when Elizabeth and Darcy dance for the first time. There’s a lone violinist playing an aria by Purcell. After a while, we hear the sound of a distant orchestra seeping into the room, merging with the Purcell aria but going at a different tempo. This is the place were we started experimenting with that blurring of boundaries between what the characters hear and what the audience hears. It’s when I knew that music can embrace the narration not as a decorative device, but as another character.”

Fans of Wright’s work could list a dozen other beats when Marianelli’s scores have seeped directly into the screen. “Anna Karenina” is full of them, and “The Soloist” — which is explicitly about music — also contains a few. The most famous instance of all might be from the opening seconds of “Atonement,” when the clatter of Briony’s typewriter bleeds into the severe piano melody of the film’s music, immediately and indelibly conveying the extent to which the young girl’s words have the power to shape the lives of those around her. “There is a level of stylization in Joe’s movies that enlarges the space for music,” Marianelli said. “It’s a very cinematic theatricality, although that sounds like a contradiction in terms.”

“Darkest Hour” is another exquisite showcase of what Wright and Marianelli do better than anyone else in the business, and it rhymes with “Atonement” in a number of different ways. Not only is the Winston Churchill biopic another story about the earth-shaking power of language (the drama once again hinging on the evacuation of “Dunkirk”), it also relies on a layered soundscape to lay bare the souls of its characters. In other words, the film is a perfect example of the partnership that helped bring it to life.

Throbbing with vigor one moment, tumbling pianos towards despair the next, and then eventually entwining those disparate modes together into the cathartic bombast that backstops Churchill’s most famous speech (“We shall fight on the beaches…”), Marianelli’s music holds “Darkest Hour” together, and the people of Britain along with it. It’s bonded to the movie on a genetic level, and grows organically through every scene. As always, the composer first started discussing the film with his director before the script was even finished. “Joe is really the only director who asks me to start writing music before shooting,” Marianelli said, “It anchors the music at a pre-visual level.”

In this case, the music was anchored to a crucial facet of Churchill’s character: “Even from the beginning, Joe already knew that much of the music would need pace and momentum, because he wanted to bring out the restlessness of Churchill’s mind. Churchill was able to think fast, and he did a great deal of thinking in those first few weeks of war.” Marianelli also revealed that Wright gave him an old, scratchy photograph of Churchill for inspiration, or bait. “There was an energy in that photo: Churchill leaning forward, some motion blur; the way it was framed, that translated in something quite propulsive.” Then, in a sneaky move that helped his longtime partner understand how well the film was going to work, Wright confessed to Marianelli that the photo was actually of Gary Oldman in makeup. (“I found that quite wonderful.”)

That set Marianelli on the right path. “I wrote six or seven pieces for piano solo. I tried a couple of experiments, adding to the piano some rhythmical artillery explosions; and in some others a voice. Eventually we kept the explosions, and we dropped the voice. I tried orchestrating a couple of the fast piano pieces, and that seemed to work well. It was, as always, a bit of early trial and error, throwing ideas around.”

For research, Marianelli said that he “mostly just tried to find out if Churchill listened to anything particular,” though he didn’t come up with much. (Folk songs from the time also factored into the process, with the idea that they could represent the voice of the British people, but most of that local flavor was ultimately sublimated into other parts of the score.)

And while the film captures its subject’s relentless fervor, sustaining a visceral sense of urgency from start to finish, Marianelli insisted that he tried not to get too hung up on just one aspect of such an astounding historical figure. He didn’t assign Churchill’s bluster to the horn section, his pluck to the violins, or anything else along such strictly didactic lines. “I try to stay loose with the connections,” he said. “Even when I attempt to reflect in the music something of a character, I always try to connect it to something that is not completely visible or obvious — I try not to double up on what the actor is already doing. Sometimes, I try to connect the music to what I imagine to be a part of their soul that is unknown even to them. Musical ideas are already ‘abstract,’ but I try to connect them to even more abstract ideas. Often it helps me to think of themes as signposting, living ‘daemons.’” Marianelli suggested that he might not have the words to explain this way of thinking, but he really doesn’t need them; “Darkest Hour” articulates Marianelli’s philosophy with perfect clarity.

Marianelli’s score doesn’t merely support Churchill’s vision or add weight to his words, it also frustrates his gravitas and feeds into his doubt. Gary Oldman is able to bring such an astronomical degree of energy to the performance partly because the music is there to bring him back to Earth, undercutting his defiant streak with an apprehensive piano lilt and then charging forwards in an orchestral rush that reeks of false confidence and real desire. The music restores an element of awareness to the performative nature of Churchill’s existence, and in turn rewards him with great humanity.

Marianelli spent a year working on the score before the first day of shooting, riffed on scenes as they came in, and then returned to full speed as soon as Wright had an assembly cut to show him, and “Darkest Hour” thrives off the fact that he was developing his music in lockstep with the movie. And yet, after all that time, he managed to nail the accompaniment to Churchill’s climactic speech on the first try. It’s a gorgeous and frenzied composition, a nearly eight-minute roller-coaster that combines the mechanical velocity of Steve Reich with the slipperiness of John Adams (two of Marianelli’s personal favorites). The music resolves with such a vivid degree of urgency that it takes you back in time and leaves you standing on the doorstep of history.

Like all of the scores that Marianelli has written for Wright’s films, the orchestrations for “Darkest Hour” are so rich that you’ll want to listen to it on its own; it’s inconceivable that these pieces wouldn’t have a life apart from the images they were made to accompany. And yet, the composer insists that he can’t afford to give any thought to how his work might survive by itself. In fact, the music is only possible because Marianelli is able to close his mind to that idea. “I only think of how best the music can help the movie,” he said.

But anything is possible “when the music within the movie is allowed to become a character, one that lives its own ‘experience’ through the movie, just like the other characters. Not every movie — or every director — allows this, but I always try nevertheless.”

“Darkest Hour” is now in theaters.

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