The Very Heart Of It: How Carey Mulligan Finds Truth Through Song

The Very Heart Of It: How Carey Mulligan Finds Truth Through Song

Carey Mulligan’s acting career has spanned a wide range of genres, playing complex women always fighting to speak their truth. And the performer works through this conflict with a singular energy, too: often in song. Emma Fraser looks back through Mulligan’s history of music, writing on the key musical moments of her filmography to date.

Beneath the bright neon lights pointing to the prescription counter, Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is piped in through the pharmacy speakers, briefly transforming Promising Young Woman from a thriller into a rom-com. Writer-director Emerald Fennell intercuts this scene with Cassie (Carey Mulligan) and Ryan eating every meal together, to underscore their inseparability during the first flourishes of love. Whimsically dancing down the aisles shows Cassie in a different light from her interactions with predatory men earlier in the film. At first, the fuchsia cardigan-clad Cassie cannot believe her new sweetheart knows the words to Hilton’s 2006 pop single, before joining in with his cutesy public performance. It is a charming and cheesy moment reminiscent of a music video, in its ability to transform a mundane location into a fantasy setting. In a film about the perils of misperception, this song choice by Fennell is purposeful in how it belies the darker themes at play. A girlish exterior might imply frivolity, but this first impression barely scratches the surface. 

Applying hot pink lipstick and a candy-coloured wig, Cassie’s final mission soundtrack packs a punch. A classical cover of Britney Spears’ ultimate bop “Toxic” acts like a shot of adrenaline, tightening the already immense tension. Rather than appearing solely within the film’s context, composer Anthony Willis’ cover was first featured in the Promising Young Woman trailer. Hearing the violin strings-led twist on the recognizable riff set my heartbeat racing. Willis’ slowed-down take stretches the notes to Hitchcockian levels of suspense, accompanying the dizzying final stages of Cassie’s vengeance plan. This subversion on a song I danced to on a weekly basis while at university transforms it from a club classic to a dangerous mission anthem. Plus, it can’t be a coincidence that in the kitsch 2003 video, Spears plays a spy. 

Shapeshifting her way through Promising Young Woman, Mulligan proves her great skill at playing complex characters who can’t always say what is on their mind without the aid of a song. Throughout Mulligan’s career are musical moments that lay bare the character she is embodying; whether this is a woman working through trauma or experiencing the heady rush of a new relationship. In the case of Cassie, both descriptions apply, and a song offers a powerful tool to depict duelling emotions. Shame, An Education, Inside Llewyn Davis, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Promising Young Woman turn to music to let a character speak their truth when a normal conversation might fail them. Upbeat pop music sits alongside melancholy traditional folk songs, and no matter the genre or location, it is spellbinding when Mulligan steps up to the mic.  


Case in point: it has been nine years later since I first saw Steve McQueen’s unflinching sex addiction drama Shame, and Carey Mulligan’s haunting rendition of “Theme from New York, New York” is still burned in my brain. Originally conceived for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 musical drama New York, New York, Liza Minnelli’s performance of this title track is as infectious as her spectacular Cabaret turn five years earlier. Delivering a successful interpretation of a famous track remains a difficult task, but Mulligan’s turn as the wild and vulnerable Sissy captures “Theme from New York, New York” in a different light that separates her from Minnelli and Frank Sinatra’s anthem.  

Part of Sissy’s charm resides in her refusal to let brother Brandon push her away. No matter how hard the spiralling sex addict tries, his sister persists. Turning this song into an intimate plea during a public performance, the raw emotion shows Mulligan deftly walking the line between resilience and vulnerability. On stage, Sissy is far more restrained than her wildly expressive introduction earlier in the movie. McQueen’s decision to shoot the actress in a tight close-up adds to the intensity of the scene, and the stripped-down piano arrangement no longer bears the big band celebratory hallmarks of either Sinatra or Minnelli’s efforts. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere,” is a call to arms not for fame, but for Brandon to let her in. Her gaze flickers in his direction after singing the line, and the camera cuts to Brandon’s glassy-eyed reaction. For the next minute, the camera stays on her brother as he struggles to maintain his composure. Drawing a line between their fragility, the song offers a chance to connect, even if what follows sends them spiralling in different directions. A sip of his martini does little to conceal the impact, before McQueen returns to Mulligan’s close-up for the remainder of the track.

Speaking to Little White Lies in 2012 for their Shame issue, Mulligan explained that McQueen wanted a live performance done in one take. “The singing filled me with terror. I sang a bit when I was at school and in the church choir, but I’d never sung properly. It was really, really terrifying,” the actress said, before adding that it took four takes before her voice stopped shaking. Rather than delivering the up-tempo boisterous confidence displayed by Sinatra, Sissy isn’t in a rush to get those infamous words out. Despite a familiarity with the lyrics, when I saw Shame for the first time, it felt like I was hearing this ode to “old New York” for the very first time. For five minutes, it is no longer a Manhattan anthem, but a direct missive from Sissy to Brandon. 

This might be the first time Mulligan delivered a stripped-down solo performance, but she had already sung on screen in Lone Scherfig’s 1960s coming-of-age drama, An Education. Lying on her bedroom floor, Jenny Mellor (Mulligan) wistfully attempts to keep up with Juliette Gréco’s “Sous le Ciel de Paris.” Still dressed in most of her school uniform, her tie has been discarded and sensible shoes hang off her swaying feet, keeping in time to the melody. She can keep the tune, even if all the words escape her, and it offers a charming snapshot of adolescent daydreams fueled by adult desires. It isn’t long before her father tells her to turn it off – because he only ascribes value to art that will aid her Oxford University application. Existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once described Gréco as having “a million poems in her voice,” but Mr Mellor’s narrow worldview does not care for flights of fancy. 

David, a much older man, dazzles Jenny by offering her a glimpse of a world full of art. On the surface, David and his friends Helen and Danny live a charmed life that quickly overshadows the teen’s carefully laid out Oxford University plans. Her father might call it a hobby, but playing the cello acts as an educational endeavour to boost her university application. David first approaches Jenny when she is waiting in the rain after practice, and he offers to drive her and her instrument home. His seduction technique is as obvious as his flashy car, but she is blinded by this daydream come to life. Mulligan’s giddy entry into the real world becomes a transformative moment both for the character and audience, watching this breakout performance. She shuts her eyes while humming Gréco, and doesn’t open them until it is nearly too late. In Shame, Sissy finds control in singing, but it gives the sheltered Jenny a taste of unrestrained glamour


Although music can be a potent love language that can crack a heart wide open, it can’t force romance. Fiercely independent farm owner Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) knows this better than most in Thomas Vinterberg’s lush adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd. A celebratory dinner with both of Bathsheba’s suitors in attendance offers an opportunity for swooning looks and chaste overtures. The previous ditties are rather boisterous folk songs, and after Bathsheba politely claims she has no voice, she succumbs to her farm employees wishes and performs a haunting version of traditional folk song “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.” Half-obscured by the piano, Bathsheba doesn’t look up at her enraptured audience until Mr William Boldwood turns this into an unexpected duet. Resident mature bachelor Boldwood is Bathsheba’s neighbour, and his single status has made him the talk of the town. He believes he will make a suitable husband, however, while they strike a harmonious chord, the only flame flickering is the candles between them. At this point in the story, the unmarried Bathsheba has been offered marriage by two men sitting at the table — one being Boldwood — and she has yet to be kissed. After this meal, she has an awkward run-in with soon-to-be third future suitor Sergeant Frank Troy who she does marry after a whirlwind romance. The song warns of false lovers and the “thyme” of the title refers to both physical time and virginity.

Mr Boldwood’s initial overture did not win the hand of his neighbour, and nor will this second attempt. Limited eye contact during the beautifully shot scene reflects Bathsheba’s difficulty communicating with the men vying for her attention. This interaction becomes more complicated because of the love triangle at play: Mr Boldwood can replace Mr Gabriel Oak at the head of the table, but he cannot replace him in Bathsheba’s heart. In a traditional 19th-century literature narrative twist, class status poses the biggest obstacle to true love. Another obstacle to a scene such as this one comes from Mulligan’s hesitation to bare her soul vocally. “I usually am fighting against singing scenes in a movie and trying to get it taken out of the film, but for this one, I wanted to do it because I got to sing with Michael Sheen. He has an amazing voice,” Mulligan told Variety in 2015.   

Inside Llewyn Davis is set nearly 100 years after Far from the Madding Crowd, and a folk revival is drawing talented musicians to the now-legendary Greenwich Village Gaslight Cafe.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song,” Llewyn Davis quips after he has played “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” after his set that opens the movie. Jean (Mulligan) is one of the performers flocking to this venue, and she has a personal relationship with Lleywn built on frustration. She’s angry because she can’t be sure if she is pregnant with her husband Jim’s baby, or the perpetually down-on-his-luck Llewyn. “Everything you touch turns to shit, you're like King Midas's idiot brother,” Jean eloquently tells Llewyn. A string of expletives leaves her mouth whenever she talks to him, which contrasts the sweet melody when she performs folk revival favourite “500 Miles” with Jim and their visiting friend Troy Nelson in the Gaslight Cafe later that day. Recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963, the Coen Brothers create their own trio with Jean, Jim andTroy. Everyone in the bar sings along during the chorus, except Llewyn who is adrift on a raft for one.


Even before Jean performs her solo, the viewer’s attention turns to her as her red turtleneck sweater pulls our gaze in while the two men fade against the desaturated grey wall. Jean pointedly sings, “Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name” while briefly flicking her eyes toward Llewyn. He responds with a defensive shoulder shrug, perhaps not realizing (or purposefully ignoring) that the song’s protagonist is facing a similar financial situation. Jean and Jim sing harmoniously, but lack the passion (and vitriol) of Jean and Llewyn’s forbidden relationship. After this initial eye contact, Jean looks anywhere but in Llewyn’s direction. Later, they argue about their philosophical approach to music — he accuses her of being a careerist and a square — and while Llewyn is quick to write her off for dreaming of suburbia, she hasn’t lost all hope for the luckless singer. 

Truth-telling tunes fill this soundtrack, and while “500 Miles” projects a happily married facade, a sweet melody cannot hide who the words are being sung to. During this scene, Llewyn is so preoccupied that all he hears is another popular song he finds little meaning (or value) in. You can’t tell before this performance whether Jean’s bitter feelings toward her one-time beau are all that remains. Mulligan’s shift toward annoyance in “500 Miles” suggests that even while she is singing she cannot contain her visceral rage toward him. Meanwhile, Llewyn proves that just because he understands the chords, he doesn’t always have insight.  

Connections made through song can imprint a powerful reminder of a performance long after the movie has ended. Music offers an opportunity to emphasize a truth that is hard to speak aloud – and whenever Mulligan is at the mic, she cuts right through the very heart of it.  

Emma Fraser (@frazbelina) is a freelance television and film writer with words at Little White Lies, Vulture, SYFY FANGRRLS, Collider and more. She loves costume design, '90s teen TV and is currently attempting to learn German.

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