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ETHAN FROME – Rachel Portman


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Ethan Frome is a romantic drama directed by John Madden, based on the tragic novel by Edith Wharton. The film is set in snowy Vermont in 1911 and stars Liam Neeson as the titular character, who has been trapped by circumstance and duty his entire life. He is married to a sickly and demanding woman, Zeena (Joan Allen), who has come to live with him and his mother after the death of her own family. The couple is struggling financially, and Ethan is unable to leave the farm to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. One winter day, a young and vivacious cousin of Zeena’s, Mattie Silver (Patricia Arquette), comes to stay with the Fromes to help care for Zeena. Ethan is immediately drawn to Mattie’s youthful energy and zest for life, and they begin to fall in love, but despite their growing feelings for each other, they are unable to act on them; Zeena is suspicious of their relationship and threatens to send Mattie away. Ethan is torn between his love for Mattie and his duty to Zeena, and in a desperate attempt to escape his unhappy life, considers running away with Mattie. However, their plan is foiled and their decision, and its aftermath, have significant consequences for all. It’s a classic, if somewhat bleak, tale of star crossed lovers, but the film was not a success with either critics or audiences; Roger Ebert famously described it as “the kind of movie they used to show us in high school English class, where it gave literature a bad name.”

Despite all this negativity the film does boast handsome production values – notably the atmospheric and wintry cinematography by Bobby Bukowski – and it has an especially excellent score by composer Rachel Portman. 1993 saw Portman on the cusp of making the full transition from British television to mainstream international cinema; she had received BAFTA TV nominations for her scores for the gothic horror mini-series The Woman in Black and for the groundbreaking Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in the late 1980s, then scored Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet in 1990, Where Angels Fear to Tread in 1991, and Used People in 1992, but her true breakthrough would come this year off the back of this score, and her two scores from later in the year, The Joy Luck Club and Benny & Joon.

I have always had a soft spot for Ethan Frome. It’s a quintessential Portman score in every sense of the word – the music overflows with her trademark writing for strings, and woodwinds – but something in Ethan Frome makes it stand out from others of its type. There is a real sense of romantic melancholy in this score that I find really outstanding; a sort of brooding mournfulness that speaks of deeply held passions and feelings of longing, but which is tempered by the ache of missed opportunities, bad luck, and the societal pressures of the period that cause all protagonists in stories of this type to become tortured and anguished. Everything is grey, everything is clouded, everything is a struggle, but despite this there is an elegance and sophistication to Portman’s writing that captivated me from the first moment I heard it.

The soundtrack album, which was released by Varese Sarabande in 1995, unfortunately contains just seven cues from Ethan Frome, amounting to just under 15 minutes of music. It is coupled with selections from three other Portman scores from around the same period – A Pyromaniac’s Love Story, Great Moments in Aviation, and Smoke – all of which are also worth hearing, but it is the music from Ethan Frome that stands out to me the most.

“Fox Here Again” introduces the score’s main theme, a deeply sorrowful and tragically romantic piece that passes effortlessly between woodwinds and strings. A lighter secondary theme for flutes backed by a wash of strings emerges in “The Sermon,” representing the hesitant forbidden romance between Ethan and Mattie, and again it swells with moody, plaintive, but passionate emotion. The emphasis on minor-key chords and the featured parts for solo cello in the cue’s second half give it a heart-wrenching and sensitive core that I appreciate enormously .

The slightly off-kilter way that Portman phrases the woodwinds in her statement of the main theme in “Coasting” is interesting, and it gives the ironic, bitter tragedy of the fateful ‘runaway carriage’ scene at the heart of Ethan and Mattie’s story real dramatic depth and weight. The solo violin that anchors the pretty and magical-sounding “Mattie Arrives” gives voice to Ethan’s love for her, and illustrates why he finds her alluring in contrast to the shrill and spiteful Zenobia. This pretty, almost shy romance continues in “Walking Home,” which sees Portman using high register strings, plucked harps, and tender woodwind passages to further deepen Ethan and Mattie’s love. I really like how the sound and texture of so many of the orchestrations in these cues have a ‘wintry’ sheen to them, matching the crisp snowy landscapes of Vermont where the film is set.

After a brief, downcast interlude in “Ethan Clears His Room” Portman finally presents her themes in full orchestral glory in the superb “End Titles” sequence; she plays both her main theme and Ethan and Mattie’s love theme back-to-back, and they absolutely shine, lyrical and graceful, and full of unrequited love. It’s one of my all-time favorite Portman pieces.

The one thing that Ethan Frome doesn’t have going for it, and which later scores like Emma and The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat and The Legend of Bagger Vance do, is that lush, sweeping sentimentality. That sound earned Portman multiple Oscar nominations and many admirers over the course of the next decade or so, and became her quintessential go-to-approach throughout much of her career. Ethan Frome, as necessitated by the story, is darker, more restrained, and more introverted, and as such fans of her sunnier and more conventionally romantic fare may find Ethan Frome to be a little on the gloomy side. Personally, though, I adore that tortured melodramatic sound, and as such this remains one of my favorites of her entire career.

As I mentioned, there’s only 15 minutes of score from Ethan Frome on the album, which is a shame because the score as heard in film context has much more to offer (including some original period dance music that is just superb), and an expanded release with a more robust running time would be welcome, especially considering that 2023 marks the film’s thirtieth anniversary. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever enjoyed Rachel Portman’s romantic writing will surely appreciate this; the album is definitely worth seeking out, and the other three scores on there are well worth hearing too.

Buy the Ethan Frome soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fox Here Again (2:03)
  • The Sermon (2:32)
  • Coasting (3:07)
  • Mattie Arrives (1:27)
  • Walking Home (1:15)
  • Ethan Clears His Room (1:04)
  • End Titles (3:03)

Running Time: 14 minutes 31 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD 5620 (1993/1995)

Music composed by Rachel Portman. Conducted by David Snell. Orchestrations by Rachel Portman. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Edited by XXXX. Score produced by Rachel Portman. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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