culture, directors, Film Spotlight, History in Films, movies, music, oscars, scores

Rachel Portman and The Duchess (2008)

Her film scores are feminine and fanciful, haunting and magical. Fifty-five year old English composer, Rachel Portman, was the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1997 for Emma. Her personal stamp as composer is behind an eclectic mix of films and television which illustrates her wide range ability to adapt to differing directors. Known for her strings and wind instruments, several of her scores evoke longing and represent a female protagonist. Her long career is impressive. She epitomizes the importance how a score can elevate the audience’s appreciation of the film. Her scores coat your sensibilities with a creamy, nostalgic emotional residue, and it is easy to forgive whatever shortcomings the film contained because the score echoes in your head long after the credits are gone. These are few of my favorites:

The violin solo grabs my heart and won’t let go.

The flute gives the score its fairy tale flavor. Is Vianne (Juliette Binoche) a good witch or a bad witch?

Whimsical, full-bodied orchestra lifts and floats your emotions like a bird drifting on a breeze. 

The romanticized view of golf as an analogy of life (better than boxing!) and Jack Lemmon? I’m hooked. Director Robert Redford capitalizes on the beauty of nature, and this film is no exception. Despite the stereotype of the “Magical Negro”, it’s a charming tale. The score ties in the mysticism and the nostalgic 30s jazzy-feel of the time. 

This is one of Johnny Depp’s best performances; as Buster Keaton, he was brilliant. The piccolo solo in the score pays homage to the silent era and compliments this 1993 dark comedy. 

If you missed this 2009 HBO biopic/drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, you can catch it for free on YouTube. About the reclusive, quirky relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it is a sad story that F. Scott Fitzgerald could have penned. Listen how the oboe and piano melody accentuates the theme of lost dreams from a bygone era of wealth and prestige.  A must see! 

Here’s a BAFTA composers interview where you can learn more about Rachel Portman:  

The Duchess 

I learned a lot about the The Duchess of Devonshire from the blog of Rachel Knowles found HERE. Or, I recommend reading Amanda Foreman’s account of Georgiana Cavendish in Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire.


Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (7 June 1757 – 30 March 1806)  was an English aristocrat who married at the age of 17 to the Duke of Devonshire. She possessed a charming, passionate personality; her complicated marriage and the role of women during the Enlightenment period is the focus of the biopic directed by Saul Dibb and stars Keira Knightley who represents “G” over a span of ten years.


With lavish costumes, balls, bedrooms, and the salons of the British nobility, all the drama of a soap opera plays out of this royal family. The Duchess showcases a superb acting performance by Ralph Fiennes as the Duke who exudes power and tyrannical rule, but manages to convey a sensitive, human side that only Fiennes could deliver. Georgiana’s affair with the future prime minister, Charles Grey, (Dominic Cooper), her complicated friendship with her husband’s mistress, Bess Foster, (Hayley Atwell), and the quest to bear a son for the Duke are the primary points of the plot, while the theme of liberty and the limited rights of women are conveyed throughout. Some critics thought the pacing slow, but I did not. I enjoyed the score, the production design, and the multi-faceted personality of Georgiana expressed through Keira Knightley’s acting.

Georgiana Cavendish Devonshire was a progressive feminist, a politician of the Whig party, and a devoted mother as well as a vain, self-absorbed party-girl and gambler. Colorful and charismatic, the film is worth watching to absorb a sense of the dynamic personality of the Duchess of Devonshire.  7/10.

Are you a fan or foe of the film?

What are your favorite Rachel Portman scores? 

33 thoughts on “Rachel Portman and The Duchess (2008)”

  1. The Duchess was a wonderful historical costume drama, and played with a deft touch by all the cast. What some consider slow pacing, I prefer to think of as ‘measured.’ I confess that I cannot recall the score though, so thanks for bringing it back to my attention.
    Best wishes, Pete.


  2. These are all great, Cindy. I particularly love The Duchess and The Cider House Rules. I just saw The Duchess recently. One of her scores, Belle, made my top 10 of 2014 ( If you haven’t seen it yet, please see it soon, it’s such a beautiful movie and the score is gorgeous!


    1. Oh, Yes! to Belle. That’s why I included it; I love the score. I remember your post well; it was why I rented it recently. Portman also scored Mona Lisa Smile, The Lake House, and Marvin’s Room. Of course, Emma. Those are all great scores.


      1. There are too few female composers out there, glad to see someone like Rachel Portman and she does amazing work!

        P.S. I rewatched parts of BELLE again last night, I LOVE that movie so much!


        1. It’s beautiful, yes? The score amplifies the period costume, the setting, and the story line. I wish there were more female composers out there! Funny how Rachel’s awesome portfolio of films is rarely mentioned. I only recently stumbled upon her and couldn’t believe how many solid films she scored.


    1. ‘Cause KK made your ‘top 10 I hate’ list??
      When she stepped out of the carriage with her baby girl on the road and the gray skies surrounded her and she had to hand over the baby–oh, I was truly moved and cried.


  3. Another interesting entertainment piece from you. You mention two films I have wanted to see but haven’t gotten around to yet: Cider House Rules (really liked the book) and Grey Gardens.


    1. I really liked the book, too, and the film did not match it even though Irving wrote the screenplay for it. It’s a worthy film; Caine is great in it (he won an Oscar). I guess I just don’t like Toby Maguire, but Charlize Theron was breathtaking. Grey Gardens–go for it!


  4. there was a time when i thought tobey maguire would be the next great american actor, but it didnt pan out that way. he was magnificent in “ride with the devil,” which is my favorite aang lee movie…but what has he done since spiderman?


  5. I haven’t seen or heard The Duchess, in fact they only Rachel Portman scored film I’m aware of is Addicted to Love, and as you know that’s one of my favourites. It’s a charming score, and while Rachel’s lush symphonics capture the spirit of classic Hollywood, her wry, ironic melodies are wonderfully modern.


      1. Ph I LOVE The Manchurian Candidate, both the original and remake. I assume you are talking about the original, which I prefer. I’ll have to revisit it and keep an ear out for the soundtrack 🙂


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