CAROL – Carter Burwell
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
A romantic drama based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol is a melodrama with a very modern slant. The film stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as Carol and Therèse, two women living in New York in the 1950s, both of whom are struggling in their relationships. Carol is estranged from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) after she had an affair with another woman, Abby (Sarah Paulson), and Harge is threatening to take away custody of their child. Meanwhile, Therèse is dissatisfied with her relationship with her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), and dreams of something more fulfilling. Their lives intersect when Carol accidentally leaves her gloves at the department store where Therèse works while Christmas shopping; when Therèse returns them, Carol insists on buying her a drink to thank her, and the subsequent sexual tension between them is palpable, but the age gap between the two, as well as their gender, threatens to break the rigid social and moral taboos of the era.
This is the third film about the social and sexual lives of 1950s housewives that Todd Haynes has made, after Far From Heaven in 2002, and the acclaimed HBO drama Mildred Pierce in 2011. It’s clearly becoming his topic of choice, a mini-genre he keeps exploring from different points of view. Carol is a beautiful film, visually, and the performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are powerful, especially when they are conveying the desperate and stifling pressures society puts on them to hide their lesbianism, and then when – for a few brief moments – they are able to be free. It’s also a film which, unfortunately, unfolds at a desperately slow pace, threatening to lull the viewer to sleep before the true meat of the story can be revealed. The dream-like cinematography, the lingering pauses and meaningful glances, and the glacial tempo, can both be positives or negatives, depending on your point of view; for me, I found the film to be an important, worthy look at a prescient subject matter, but which was presented in such a way that I was bored more than I was engrossed.
The score for Carol is by Carter Burwell, who won an Emmy for his score for Mildred Pierce, and is working with Haynes for the third time here. To mimic the somewhat faraway feel of the film, Burwell wraps his score in a gauze of wistful minimalism, often seemingly channeling Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, but which is ultimately characterized by his familiar idiosyncratic chord progressions and minor-key thematic writing. The two lead characters are identified by two instrumental markers – Carol by piano, Therèse by woodwinds – which are then augmented by a chamber sized string orchestra sans brass, an occasional guitar, and very little percussion – a harp here, a marimba there.
Tonally, the score very much mirrors the film in that it unfolds at a leisurely pace, often having such a steady tempo that it hypnotizes the listener into a trance-like state, with Burwell’s languid chords washing over you like a gentle tide. It’s all very lovely and peaceful, but it also feels rather inert, dramatically, intentionally choosing not to overplay any of the emotions. I suppose, in one way, this lack of emotional release is an intellectual reflection of the love that Carol and Therèse cannot acknowledge, and as such makes it sense in the context of the film, but unfortunately it renders the soundtrack album a little on the dull side.
Thematically, the score is built around three recurring motifs, identifiable as much by their orchestration as the melody. Burwell says, “The music over the opening city scene (“Opening”) plays the active engagement and passion of Carol and Therèse. In this scene it’s telling you something about the characters before you ever see them, since they appear for the first time around the last note, but eventually this will become their love theme. There is a theme for Therèse’s fascination with Carol, first played as Carol drives Therèse to her house (“To Carol’s”). This is basically a cloud of piano notes, not unlike the clouded glass through which Todd Haynes and Ed Lachman occasionally shoot the characters. This piano texture required a little studio magic so the left and right hands of the piano could be processed separately – the left disappearing into a cloud and the right still distinct enough to carry a melody. The third theme is about absence and loss. Its fullest expression is the montage after Carol leaves Therèse and tries to explain herself in a letter (“Letter”). It’s the best example of the use of open intervals such as the fourth, fifth and ninth, to veil sentiment. The hearts of both women are broken, but rather than play the pain the music plays the emptiness.”
Carol and Therèse’s love theme, which blends the Glassian pianos with soft woodwinds and see-sawing string figures, reappears frequently throughout the score, in cues such as “Datebook” where it is re-orchestrated for guitar and marimba, the gently playful “Christmas Trees,” the more dark and ominous “The Train,” and especially in “Drive Into Night” and “Lovers,” the romantic and physical culmination of their relationship. The Fascination theme returns in cues like “Packing” and “Waterloo,” and captures the aloof and occasionally cold demeanor Carol has adopted to protect herself from the world, while simultaneously depicting the magnetic hold she has over her young lover.
Elsewhere, cues like “Taxi” are somewhat stark and isolated, with pianos and violins echoing in the darkness; peculiar, distant voices give “To Carol” a distorted, enigmatic quality; and “Gun” has a sense of quiet desperation, and a battery of those dark chord progressions for which Burwell is well known. Towards the end of the score Burwell brings out his guitar once more, in “The Times,” but finishes the score on an oddly incomplete note with “The End,” an attractive final performance of Carol and Therèse’s love theme which somehow does not offer me any real catharsis or sense of closure, instead just drifting away into the ether.
The soundtrack, on Varese Sarabande, is rounded out by several 1950s pop and early rock songs by artists like The Clovers, Billie Holliday, Georgia Gibbs, and Jo Stafford, many of which were clearly chosen for their lyrical content, which unintentionally speak to the forbidden romance at the heart of the story.
Many mainstream writers and critics are predicting that Carol will earn Carter Burwell his first Academy Award nomination, and with the film being as lauded as it has been, I would not be surprised at all if this were to occur. I just wish I was able to connect with it on a deeper level than I have. It’s undoubtedly dramatically sound, intellectually compelling, musically interesting – all the things one could want from a drama score – but for some reason that I haven’t been able to put my finger on the emotional connection, that intangible something, somehow passes me by. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, Burwell was “emphatic that his scores aren’t responsible for all of the emotional heavy-lifting,” and said that, “as a listener, I do not like being instructed. It riles me when the music tells me something before I can figure it out for myself. In fact, I enjoy the discomfort of not being sure how to take something.” This is the exact opposite of what I want in a film score, so perhaps that is where the disassociation lies.
Buy the Carol soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Opening (2:13)
- Taxi (1:43)
- To Carol’s (1:39)
- One Mint Julep (written by Rudy Toombs, performed by The Clovers) (2:26)
- Datebook (0:52)
- Christmas Trees (2:19)
- Easy Living (written by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin, performed by Billie Holiday with Tedd Wilson & His Orchestra) (3:02)
- The Train (2:30)
- Packing (1:10)
- Drive into Night (0:52)
- Kiss of Fire (written by Ángel Villoldo, performed by Georgia Gibbs) (2:25)
- Waterloo (0:40)
- Lovers (2:40)
- Gun (3:06)
- Smoke Rings (written by Gene Gifford, performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford) (2:56)
- Over There (1:12)
- Visitation (1:29)
- To Court (1:01)
- Letter (3:25)
- No Other Love (written by Paul Weston and Bob Russel, performed by Jo Stafford) (2:57)
- The Times (2:16)
- Reflections (1:18)
- Crossing (1:30)
- You Belong to Me (written by Chilton Price, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, performed by Helen Foster & The Rovers) (2:53)
- The End (3:53)
Running Time: 52 minutes 38 seconds
Varese Sarabande (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Album produced by Carter Burwell.