Celebrating Rachel Portman—the versatile composer behind many of our well loved films

Born on 11th December 1960 in Surrey, UK, Rachel Portman is “one of the most prolific film score composers of the modern age,” having written over 100 scores for films and stage productions. She began composing from the age of 14, and is the first female composer to win an Oscar for the Best Musical or Comedy Score in Emma (1996). Portman attended Worcester College at Oxford University to study music. There, she realized her interest lay in composing for films and started to dabble in creating music for student films and theater productions. Her first jobs in music composition for dramas were at BBC and Channel 4. She wrote for films such as Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Four days in July, and Storyteller. Storyteller won Portman an Anthony Asquith Award from the British Film Institute.

Rachel Portman is commonly known for her compositions for the films Never Let Me Go (2010), Emma (1996), and Chocolat (2000). She has also been involved in several episodes of television shows, such as 1987’s A Little Princess, Young Charlie Chaplin (1989), and 1992 mini-series The Cloning of Joanna May to name a few. Her main pieces such as Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, grossed over $22,000,000 after a budget of $6,000,000. The romantic comedy from Jane Austen follows a young girl who is busy playing matchmaker to her friends and neighbors that she almost misses her own chance at love. Portman’s music feels joyful and lighthearted. It is warming and brings a sense of calm and peace to the picture. There are moments that Portman’s music adds to the comedy of the film. Alongside the film’s many nominations and wins, Portman was amongst the winners who received an Oscar for her work. 

Chocolat (2000) follows a story in 1959 in La Belle France—a small town where a woman “Vianne” (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter open a chocolate shop. Nobody could have predicted what the two spirited newcomers would do to a community rooted in tradition. The music in Chocolat brings the lively character of the people to the movie. The spritely personalities that are uncommon to the rigidly traditional town are highlighted in the music. Vianne and her daughter come from a Mayan background, very different to those in the town of Lansquenet, and whenever Vianne is selling her tempting chocolate, the music becomes mystical and lively. Her motif that comes back over and over again made me really enjoy the movie; it felt very warmhearted and enchanted. Chocolat was nominated for five Oscars, one of the nominations being Rachel Portman for Best Music, Original Score. She was nominated for four other awards such as a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack Album For A Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media and a Golden Globe for Best Original Score – Motion Picture.

The Vow (2012) is a film about a young married couple, who undergo an unexpected challenge that life throws in their perfect newlywed life. After “Paige” (Rachel McAdams) gets into a horrific crash, she loses memories and can’t remember her husband “Leo” (Channing Tatum). Slowly, step by step, they start to reconnect. This film, which grossed $196,000,000, won Rachel Portman a BMI Film and TV award for Film Music.

Belle (2013) is a film by Amma Asante about a mixed race illegitimate daughter (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) of a British admiral in 18th century England. She is raised in the aristocracy by her great-uncle “Lord William Murray” (Tom Wilkinson), 1st Earl of Mansfield, who plays an important part in abolishing slavery. Though the story is not necessarily factually correct, it serves its purpose about exploring and telling the story of a wealthy black woman in 1700s England, and how wealth and race affects her. In the film, there is a lot of simple and subtle orchestral music to create the atmosphere of each moment. Sometimes the film calls for a sad moment or a nostalgic moment, and the music helps create those feelings. It beautifully and so subtly intertwines with the film and dialogue. Portman incorporates musical lyricism into the film that accentuates its atmosphere and beauty. She writes great pieces that compliment the mood of a scene. The music for this film, however, is very different to that of Chocolat. Belle’s music is a lot more romantic, which tends to be more legato with a focus on the strings. It carefully lies in the background of each scene and does not overpower the performances, which is a good thing. That way both story and music flow together without distracting the other. Read our review of Belle here and our feature on Amma Asante here.

In One Day (2011), “Emma” (Anne Hathaway) and “Dexter” (Jim Sturgess) spend a night together at their university graduation. From then on, every year on that day, the film follows where they are in their lives, sometimes being together and sometimes not. “Composer Rachel Portman creates epic film scores with lyrical leitmotifs” says FF2 Media Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner. Portman easily intertwines the film music into each scene. Music is an important fixture in films, as it helps locate the setting of the film, the mood of the character and/or scene, and creates an atmosphere that can either intensify the mood or calm the audience. In Emma and Dexter’s romantic moments such as the one where they skinny-dip, the music gently lulls the audience into a calm romantic feeling. Even if the music only enters for a short section of a scene, at times just for a phrase, it makes all the difference. It works its magic by bringing the audience’s attention to the romantic nature of the moment with its sustained legato strings tugging at our heart strings, and the gentle piano trickling into our anticipation for a kiss. But when the build-up becomes an anticlimax, the music drops out. Small musical phrases like this are very effective. The music also plays during sad and heartbreaking moments, again focusing on sustained strings and gentle piano melodies. Coming in fragments, the film score picks out important instances in the characters’ lives to accent their strong emotions, focusing on the intimacy between them. There’s something about a solo cello that always makes a scene extremely emotional. What is really clever is the way Portman adapts melodic themes to parts of the film that are emotionally different; there is never a moment when the recurrent themes clash with the tone of the scene.

Aside from film music, Rachel Portman has also composed commissioned works such as the orchestral piece, Endangered—a piece commissioned by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, for the World Environment Day Concert in 2013. She’s written choral works such as an opera, The Little Prince (2003), based on Saint Exupery’s story for the Houston Grand Opera, and The Water Diviner’s Tale (2007), a dramatic choral piece that was inspired by climate change and was performed at the BBC Proms 2007.

The works mentioned above are only a few out of her large repertoire of compositions. Some other films include The Duchess (2008), The Cider House Rules (1999), The Joy Luck Club (1993), and The Lake House (2006). Rachel Portman’s accomplishments are endless; her works range from orchestral, choral, and ensembles, to films and animations. She is definitely worth exploring and keeping an eye and an ear out for, and deserves recognition for her works and achievements. She has some upcoming music, for example an album Ask the River which is focused on piano, inspired by nature. Often drawn to film music, Portman likes to challenge herself to write music unconnected to film, so this would be her first album completely on its own, not for film.

Featured Photo: Juliette Binoche in Chocolat (2000)

Top Photo: Rachel Portman at the 2010 BMI Film and Television Awards

Middle Photo: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Sam Reid in Belle (2013)

Bottom Photo: Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in One Day (2011)

Photo Credits: David Appleby; ©2010 Jon Burlingame; Giles Keyte

Tags: composer, FF2 Media, film composer, rachel portman, SophiaJin

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Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
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