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Mary Shelley (Amelia Warner)

June 6, 2018

I loved Frankenstein as a kid; the book, I mean. It’s a fascinating read. Imaginative, compelling, disturbing, yet full of sympathy. Equally fascinating it its author’s live. Mary Shelley’s experienced her own fair share of drama. She suffered several miscarriages, her husband drowned during a sailing trip, and Mary herself spent the last decade of her life ill, likely from a brain tumour. Not mentioning the constant debt and, for some reason, not fully fitting into society. Now, there have been plenty of films based on Shelley’s more famous novel, so it’s nice to see that there’s a film about the author itself, though it’s sad to see the film is being poorly received.

The film is directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour who seems to focus on making films about women’s lives – and why not? She wrote and directed Wadjda, The Only Way Out and Women Without Shadows which cast a light on the lives of women in Saudi Arabia. So it’s a change of locale, but you can see why Al-Mansour took on Mary Shelley. The original score is by Amelia Warner who started out in the movie industry as an actress, appearing in some two dozen movies. She’s a musician performing as Slow Moving Millie and has recently started scoring movies. Mum’s List was her first feature, Mary Shelley is only her second film score – and by jove, it’s quite something!

Warner says of her approach to the score: “We used a lot of synths layered with the orchestra. The real strings layered with electric synths created a strangeness and modernity that I think works well with Mary’s character. We found some amazing musicians and two incredible singers who are a huge part of the score. We used a soprano and a counter tenor and had them sing in a very expressive way. For example, when things start to go a bit crazy in those Geneva scenes, we got the singers to scream and to slide up and down the scale to create an unsettling disorientation. It was a difficult cue and took a while to get right. Voice was really important as were the strings, which are slightly discordant. We also used breath and heartbeat to feel like we are experiencing it as Mary.

I can’t be sure of Warner’s musical influences, though she once said in an interview with The Telegraph that she grew up in the 80s with Bananarama, Thompson Twins, Yazoo and Tears For Fears. Listening to Mary Shelley I suspect more recent influences to include Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter, perhaps Nicholas Britell or Sarah Class and maybe even Vangelis. Mary Shelley reminds me of a lot of different scores… and I don’t mind it one bit… because Warner combines a number of familiar(ish) elements and in doing so creates a wholly unique musical landscape. It may remind me of many things, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it.

Warner makes great use of female vocals, first noticed in the sea-sawing theme for Mary Shelley right there in the opening cue. Yet, far more intriguing are the pitched notes that occur throughout the score (from “Storm in the Stars” to “An Unreal Mystery” and beyond). As she said in the quote, she has singers sliding up and down the scales and it’s absolutely mesmerising (like an acoustic version of what Vangelis often did with his synths). It’s both beautiful and unsettling (dare I say: haunting) at once — it’s a master stroke!

Piano plays an important role throughout the score. Its notes are sparse, but its emotional impact is strong. Warner seems to opt for a piano sound (possibly slightly dampened) where you can also hear the mechanics and the creaks of the instrument itself. It’s rather popular these days, thanks to folks like Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds and others. Solo violin also adds a intimate and poignant touch to several cues.

Strings form the backbone for the score; and they are emotive and lush. Sometimes they’re wafer-thin oozing with melancholy and loneliness; but elsewhere, especially when combined with synth pads, they create a big, broad sound. They sound almost epic in cues like “Mary’s Decision” and “The Book”.  The use of synths in Mary Shelley is spectacular. There is plenty of them, but Warner opted for organic-sounding pads that blend in beautifully with the strings (and the winds and occasional brass). It frequently reminds me of Jóhannsson, and perhaps nowhere more so than during “Mary Meets Percy” (around the 1-minute mark) when a brief flurry of strings suddenly decelerates and transitions into floating chords; very much like Jóhannsson did in works like “Fordlandia”.

Elsewhere “An Unreal Mystery” is a master-class in atmosphere. It’s mysterious, beautiful, a little unnerving, and totally captivating. All courtesy of thick strings, piano, sliding vocals and breathing noises. “Kings Cross” and “Lost in Darkness and Distance” offer a semi-upbeat theme, even accompanied by a drum-kit in “Kings Cross”.  “Caged Bird” is a waltz for accordion, piano, and a few others instruments. This is one those tracks that strongly remind me of something, though I can’t quite place it right now.

Amelia Warner’s May Shelley is a wonderful score. I sense a fair bit of temp-track love, as the music reminds me quite strongly of many other works (but who knows, I may be wrong). I certainly don’t mind, as it reminds me of works that I love. Also, Warner manages to combine some familiar and some crazy ideas into a super-slick package that’s unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time, if ever. The use of synth and vocals over strings and piano is just exquisite. There is always something interesting going on, either melodically or aurally. Now… I could wonder how this music works in context, seeing as the story is set in the early 1800s and this is not your typical ‘period movie’ score. But again, I’m not too bothered. As an album it’s mesmerising. It tells a story all on its own. For me, this score came completely out of the blue, and is one of the most exciting scores of the year. I can’t wait to hear whatever Warner comes up with next. [4.5/5]

Mary Shelley, Amelia Warner, 19 tracks, 38m, Universal/Decca 2018.

Review by Pete Simons (c) 2018 Synchrotones

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