Director Todd Haynes has a particular gift for the minutiae of retro culture. He has eyes and ears for the olden, with a sincere longing and wistfulness. His abstract biography of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, capitalized on the many faces of the musician by casting him with different actors for each of his life periods. For Far From Heaven, a lovingly modern take on the films of Douglas Sirk, Haynes recreated the aesthetics of a Connecticut-set ‘50s film, complete with a lush Elmer Bernstein score (which netted the veteran an Oscar nomination). So, it comes as no surprise that Haynes has put care into the construction of music for his latest effort, Carol.
The award-nominated film is a lovely romance, a considered work of queer cinema that’s been putting a spell on its audiences with Haynes’ sympathetically rendered gaze, and the original motion picture soundtrack is a calm, kind, and pleasing component. It works within and without the film. In the film, it becomes key. Listened to alone, this is breathy, easy listening, bringing together focused tunes. The soundtrack is made up of a touching, original score from veteran composer Carter Burwell, with nicely curated songs from the period being depicted. Haynes has mined Burwell’s affinity for old-fashioned, brash scores to full potential here, while also tapping into the composer’s sensitive side with a patient, alluring new sound.
The movie’s orchestra features a healthy dose of woodwinds; clarinets and oboe drive the themes (of which there are three mains). Every so often, a distinct harp or piano melody lilts atop the constantly circulating background music. Think of a lighter, more friendly, inviting variation on the sounds of Philip Glass. Burwell creates a distant, almost lost mood, evoking a past afraid to allow for loud, rapturous music.
(Read: NYFF Film Review: Carol)
In one scene, Cate Blanchett’s disaffected housewife, Carol, is about to run away on a road trip with the object of her eye, Therese (Rooney Mara). It’s a fling. And it’s with careful enthusiasm that the two are about to spend time with one another, yet the men in their worlds look on with bafflement and thinly veiled resentment. That poo-pooing and hard-fought planning can’t spoil the romantic swell of tension between the two, and Burwell’s score ties scenes like this together in a hypnotizing way. “Packing” plays over scenes of preparation with its hollowed out piano, punctuating with a kind of inner enthusiasm in spite of anxious circumstances.
“To Carol’s” makes the same moves, and it puts the story and listener at ease as Therese is on her way to a rendezvous. “Drive Into Night” escalates with a simultaneously nervous and proud momentum. “Letters” uses strings and winds to full emotional potential, without deliberately forcing dramatic cues. Burwell has described the music as “cool” based on his instrument choices, and that makes sense. He doesn’t rely on his instruments to feel for the characters and story, but rather the music becomes a part of them.
Admittedly, the soundtrack could have consisted exclusively of Burwell’s work and it would have been a mild chamber music masterpiece. It would go well with cooking, reading, or other quiet, thoughtful moments alone. The tunes by Billie Holiday and The Rovers, carefully curated or not, are not wholly needed. But even that can’t get in the way.
Burwell’s compositions are special; he has created one of those rare movie scores that is restrained yet pronounced. Carol was lucky enough to be a quieting romance in which everything is delicately chosen, from the muted, mindfully sparse dialogue, to the non-obvious cinematography, to the patient editing with emphasis on character moments. Burwell’s score is interested in the soft-spoken expression of often internal emotions. Within the confines of the film, the music exists with perfect symbiosis with the subjects and their story.
Carol plays for a hard-fought romance with heart-rending circumstances, and among its many right decisions in telling the tale, Burwell’s music elevates the material with succulent, supple elegance. Cheers to Burwell’s hopeful first Oscar nomination, brought out by the crystalized story: fragile, yet clear, and, above all, beautiful.
Essential Tracks: “Opening”, “Packing”, and “Letter”