Symbol, narrative and the musics of

Truly, Madly, Deeply


Few films, including musicals, have relied so heavily on music for storytelling as Truly, Madly, Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1990), an intimate romantic comedy that explores grief and mourning. The music is an integral part of the film’s narrative, and essential in the development of its main characters: Nina is an amateur pianist devastated by the sudden and unexpected death of her lover, Jamie, a cellist. The use of music in the film transcends the boundaries of classical film scoring and gives psychological depth to the utopian, but often emotionally static, musical number. The traditional functions of a non-diegetic score are to provide emotional inflection within a scene and continuity between scenes while doing its work unnoticed, but the underscore of Truly, Madly, Deeply interacts with other cinematic elements and with other musics in the film to an unprecedented degree, generating a layer of purely musical symbolism. The traditional musical number is celebratory or reflective; it is the dilation of a moment in time, a lingering over an emotion as it is experienced in that moment. But in this film, the musical numbers actively construct the relationship between the characters, a relationship established long before the commencement of the film’s narrative and therefore not available to the unusual cinematic devices for demonstrating the development of such intensity and complexity. Music is often relegated to a subsidiary function in film, even by those for whom the music is a central concern. This is undoubtedly a manifestation, however unconscious, of Rick Altman’s
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1 Rick Altman, ‘Introduction: cinema sound’, Yale French Studies, no. 60 (1980), p. 14.







2 For the best overview of classical Hollywood musical practice, see Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1987). For an excellent demonstration of how pervasive the practice still is, see Kathryn Kalinak, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), which includes analyses of film from the 1980s, particularly The Empire Strikes Back and Robocop.

3 No doubt this increase is due in large measure to the marketing principle of ‘synergy’, or cross-promotion between film and music, mediated by the use of music video. However attractive, this strategy is not usually as successful as its prevalence would suggest. See R. Serge Denisoff and George Plasketes, ‘Synergy in 1980s film and music: formula for success or industry mythology?’, Film History, vol. 4, no. 3 (1990), pp. 257–76.

double-whammy of fallacies, the historical and the ontological, about the relationship between sound and image: Instead of treating sound and image as simultaneous and coexistent, the historical fallacy orders them chronologically, thus implicitly hierarchizing them. . . . The version of the ontological fallacy regularly applied to cinema claims that film is a visual medium and that the images must be/are the primary carriers of the film’s meaning and structure.1

A specialized subset of cinema sound, music is on even more precarious grounds for two reasons which might seem logical, if one were governed by these fallacies: first, it is usually non-diegetic, so it is not an active participant in the cinematic realm to the extent that, say, even lighting or set design is – in other words, it does not impact on the characters in the narrative; second, it is almost always added in the post-production phase and is, sometimes literally, the last thing added to a film before it is shipped to the distributor. According, then, to a specific version of the general historical fallacy, music is of little importance because it comes after everything else in the filmmaking process. The ‘logic’ of these fallacies is further ingrained by the strain of film studies which dominated throughout the field’s formative years, that is auteurism. The concentration on the creation of a film rather than its reception almost necessarily compartmentalizes the various elements of such a highly collaborative art and demotes in importance those elements not directly controlled by the designated ‘auteur’. Yet the completed film is received as a totality by the spectator/auditor, and the soundtrack, music included, will work on the audience at the same time as the image does.

The scoring ideal is still, to a very great extent, that of the classical Hollywood cinema; that is, it should be unobtrusive, invisible, ‘unheard’.2 The exception, of course, is the musical, where the music is the focus – and necessarily composed first, unwittingly playing into the specific historical fallacy – and the rest of the film sometimes merely an excuse for the music. Although the Hollywood musical seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur, the use of pre-recorded popular songs in films has increased over the past quarter of a century.3 Sometimes these songs function no differently than the classical non-diegetic underscore or ordinary diegetic (‘source’) music, and sometimes they are very specifically chosen for the cultural connotations that they will bring to the scene when recognized by the audience. This is certainly true in Truly, Madly, Deeply, which mixes musics in what may at first seem an indiscriminate hodgepodge. However, most of the music was written specifically into the screenplay and is part of a rich network of symbols that operate overtly, but rarely obtrusively, throughout the film. The music in Truly, Madly, Deeply is widely varied in style, and it functions on several narrative levels: as classical film underscore,
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply

  inflecting the emotional content of the scene and providing temporal direction within and between scenes; as a representation of the main characters and their changing relationship to one another; and as illumination and foreshadowing of Jamie’s motivations, not explicitly revealed until the end of the film. Different music is used for each function: composer Barrington Pheloung provides the underscore; the music of J.S. Bach represents the characters and their relationship; popular songs are the carriers of motivation. The placement of these various musics in respect to the diegesis highlights their disparate styles and functions. The pop songs are source music, performed on screen by characters in the film. The underscore is, by definition, non-diegetic music which can affect only the audience. But the Bach slides between diegetic and non-diegetic music, sometimes beginning as one and ending as the other, or remaining ambiguously suspended between the two. Although the music operates in these three different conceptual spaces – narrative, style and placement – and each of these is further divided into three contrasting elements, each type of music does not remain segregated in its niche, nor is there some mathematical relationship between this trinity of triads. The various musics continually interact with one another, and with the visual and verbal imagery in the film, carrying with them ingrained cultural meanings which extend their impact beyond even this complex matrix of functions, particularly in relation to the high/low culture split between Bach and the pop songs. The density of symbolism in the film generally almost replaces, or even precludes, narrative motion, and in order to understand the musics’ integral role in the fabric of the film, we must tease out the various strands that weave together so tightly. Although my first gambit in opening up the film may appear to be a backsliding into the auteurism I earlier criticized, I wish to emphasize that this is really just an appearance, as I establish the dramatis personae involved and their relationship to one another and to the film. In practice, the film was apparently as collaborative an effort as any film is likely to be. The screenplay was written and directed by Anthony Minghella, and the presence of a writer–director is an open invitation to those with an auteurist bent. But Minghella wrote the film specifically for actress Juliet Stevenson, incorporating into her character a great deal of her own personality, including her relationship with actor Alan Rickman. The personal quirks of the two close friends (not lovers, as in the film) formed the basis of the onscreen characters and their relationship – for instance, the friction caused by her disorganization and his unwavering certainty in his own opinions – so even the screenplay was deeply imprinted by the actors. In the foreword to the published screenplay, Minghella also thanked Rickman, a successful theatrical director as well as actor, for his contributions ‘behind the camera’. In the script Minghella specified the diegetic music in detail, strengthening the opportunity to see him as
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4 Stevenson and Maloney had also starred in a previous Minghella short film, produced by Muppet creator Jim Henson, which bears striking thematic resemblances to Truly, Madly, Deeply. Living With Dinosaurs (1989) is about a young boy, Dom, with an unnatural fear of fish, though he lives in a fishing village. Dom is ashamed of his eccentric father (Maloney), a sculptor who specializes in fish imagery. Dom’s mother (Stevenson) is a very busy physician undergoing a difficult pregnancy, and Dom is rabidly jealous of the new baby which they call ‘the bulge’. The boy’s only friend is a soft toy dinosaur called Dog (a Muppet operated and voiced movingly by Brian Henson), whom Dom takes with him everywhere, even to school in his knapsack. Dog comes to life when no one else is around and has a penchant for Elvis Presley songs. He gently guides the boy into a reconciliation with his father and an acceptance of his impending siblinghood, and Dom leaves Dog to protect his mother, who has nearly suffered a miscarriage. The film ends with Dog serenading ‘the bulge’ just as he had sung to Dom. The characters of Jamie and Dog, and their motivations, are almost identical: Jamie returns from the dead to help Nina come to terms with his death and a new life with Mark; Dog comes to life to help Dom come to terms with his father and the new baby, and to learn to make friends with other children. Dog and Jamie, significantly, both use music to carry out their tasks.

auteur, but composer Barrington Pheloung’s mediation through not only his underscore, but also his arrangement of the most prominent of the pop songs, is just as crucial in the musics’ working as was the selection. But perhaps we should start with a more conventional analysis of the film before tackling the subtler aspects of the music.

Truly, Madly, Deeply has frequently been tagged ‘the thinking person’s Ghost’, but this is a deceptive analogy. Whereas in Ghost (Jerry Tucker), also released in 1990, the return of the dead lover is merely a plot twist, in Truly, Madly, Deeply it is fundamental. Ghost was a crime movie with a gimmick; Truly, Madly, Deeply is a film about the impact of death upon life. The story centres on Nina Mitchell (Stevenson), who works as a Spanish translator in a busy walk-in translation bureau in North London. When the film opens, Jamie (Rickman) has been dead for some months. Outwardly, Nina seems to be dealing with Jamie’s sudden and freakish death from strep throat, but her boss, Sandy (Bill Paterson), and her sister, Claire (Deborah Findlay), sense that she is not. In her visits to her therapist we see how right they are. Nina is emotionally exhausted, constantly on the verge of tears; she senses Jamie’s presence and, at times, even hears his voice. His mundane instructions (‘brush your teeth’, ‘go to bed’, ‘lock the back door’) comfort her. Sometimes he even speaks to her in Spanish. Funny thing, though – we are told – Jamie couldn’t speak Spanish.

One evening, as Nina sits alone in her flat, missing him, Jamie reappears. He is Jamie as she remembers him, warm, funny, concerned (he reproves her for her overdue bills, the ramshackle flat, forgetting to lock the back door), and passionately involved in party politics (he still attends meetings). He is also still an irritating neatnik (he constantly tidies Nina’s comfortably messy flat) and a hypochondriac (he is afraid if he catches a cold now, he will have it forever, so he is continually cranking the central heating up to tropical temperatures). After a blissful week spent ensconced in her flat, Jamie begins to gradually nudge Nina out of their safe, comfortable seclusion. She returns to work and she makes attempts at socializing, but at night she comes home to Jamie. Balancing the two worlds becomes difficult, however – Jamie has to hide whenever visitors come, so she avoids visitors; then he takes to bringing home friends from the other side to watch videos, and each time they come, there are more of them, threatening to fill the flat to overflowing. Nina is also drawn to Mark (Michael Maloney), an art therapist she meets in a cafe, but she obviously feels guilty about being ‘unfaithful’ to Jamie. Eventually, although she pleads with Jamie to stay, he leaves her once more. His mission has been accomplished – he has made Nina realize that, literally or figuratively, she cannot live with a ghost.4
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply

  The plot of the film is quite simple: girl loses boy, girl meets another boy, girl gets on with life. The richness of the narrative lies in the widely praised performances of the two leads and, on a more structural level, in its symbolism. In some senses, the symbolism is the narrative, for the plot – minimal as it is – unfolds in a series of vignettes largely constructed by symbolism.

Everything around Nina echoes her loss. Her flat is falling apart – the plumbing does not work, the kitchen cabinet doors do not close, the wallpaper is peeling, and now she has rats. Even the companions that surround her are dealing with losses of their own. Titus, the handyman, is lonely for his native Poland and fancies himself in love with Nina. Sandy’s ex-wife Gabriela has custody of their son Charlie, and Charlie speaks only Spanish, one language that the multilingual Sandy does not speak; therefore, Sandy must rely upon Nina to translate Charlie’s messages. Claire’s husband Nick is always busy and is more interested in climbing Mount Everest than spending time with his family. Nina’s student Maura works as a cleaner, although in Chile she was a filmmaker. Maura’s friend Roberto was a doctor in El Salvador, but now works as a waiter. Even the pest-control man George is a widower.

Maura and Claire are closest to Nina, but they represent an anger and a loss that Nina has almost repressed. Both Maura and Claire are pregnant, but only once, during a wrenching visit to her therapist, does Nina reveal, to the audience if not to herself, her desire for a child. She vents her fury with women who have or are having children and with Jamie for leaving her (implicitly leaving her without a child). It is the birth of Maura’s baby which causes the crisis in Nina’s predicament. She comes to the realization that the ghostly Jamie will never be able to provide her with any kind of life – not for herself, hiding away from the world, and certainly not the child she so desperately wants.

These symbolic themes woven into the narrative are augmented by other, more contained, verbal and visual symbols. Clouds recur constantly as objects of contemplation: for Nina as she gazes out of windows throughout the film; as a subject for one of Maura’s English lessons; as a naming-game that Jamie and Nina play in their idyll after his return. Traditionally associated with heaven, the clouds are on one level a symbol of Jamie’s tenuous state of existence, but they also seem representative of his substantive presence. At the end of the scene in which Nina and Mark meet, the camera lingers on a puddle reflecting a grey, cloudy sky – a sky last seen as Jamie gazed thoughtfully out the window of Nina’s flat. A set of cloud-shaped wind-chimes that he had given her become a point of contention as he discovers them during a bout of tidying and demands to know why they aren’t hanging up; the chimes then follow Nina around her flat, in the kitchen, next to the bed, near her reading lamp, as if Jamie is moving them to remind her always of his presence. As we shall see,
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply

  clouds also play a prominent role in the lyrics of the popular songs that Jamie sings to Nina, extending the imagery to rain and, by association, to tears.

The clouds are frequently framed through a window, at Nina’s flat or at the therapist’s office, which connects with the most pervasive and emotionally significant visual symbol in the film. When Jamie first returns, he describes death as ‘like being behind a glass wall while everyone else got on with missing me’, and throughout the film, the image of characters isolated behind glass resonates with the division between the worlds of the living and the dead. At the beginning, before Jamie’s return, Nina hangs out laundry in her back garden while Sandy, Titus, George and Keith the plumber wash the dishes; they watch her through the window as they discuss Jamie’s death and Nina’s subsequent devastation. Following their cloud-naming game, Jamie pauses thoughtfully before closing the window, shutting out the living world. When Claire comes to visit, Jamie and Nina hide from her, watching her through the window.

Nina’s relationship with Mark can be traced through the symbolism of the glass wall. Her placement behind glass reveals her transition from isolation and mourning (her figurative death) towards Mark and life. She makes her first date with him through the window of a London bus, and she must open the window herself to speak to him; she must also strain as she reaches through the narrow window to give him her hand. Later, feeling stifled by her growing number of ghostly guests, Nina sits at her window, leaning out for cool air. The window is larger, and her body is freer to move through it. Indeed, she seems about to break away from the spectral invasion but, in the end, she chooses to close the window herself and turns back into the room with the ghosts. When Nina visits Mark at work, the glass walls of the building separate them, but finally, at the end of the film, she moves out into the world of the living. The ghosts watch Nina and Mark kiss from behind the windows of her flat.

Other symbolic structures in the film are less progressive and more symmetrical. Many moments early in the film are reflected in later episodes. Some balance in pairs. When Nina first meets Mark he is wearing jeans, a green henley shirt and navy overcoat – the same apparel favoured by Jamie. Jamie and Nina also share clothing, most significantly a pair of silver silk pajamas with an olive green cardigan that Nina wears before Jamie’s return and that Jamie wears after he comes back. A set of mirrored scenes also structure Nina’s relationship with Mark. After Nina and Mark make their first date, her bus pulls away, leaving Mark on the pavement with the group of mentally handicapped young adults with whom he works. She waves to him, and Mark’s ‘group’ wave goodbye. Later, when Nina goes to meet Mark at work (her first active step in their relationship), they wave at one another from behind the building’s glass walls. Again, the group clusters around Mark and joins in the waving, but this time the
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply

  action is welcoming. Other symbols are more subtly juxtaposed, as a visual image is verbalized, or action by one character is echoed by another – Nina’s and Jamie’s separate closing of the same window – or the same image is recontextualized. For instance, the appearance of a rat horrifies Nina at the beginning; when she sees it again at the end, it is a poignant confirmation that Jamie is indeed gone, for rats, he says, are terrified of ghosts.

This mirror-like construction may also be observed in the only two scenes in which Jamie, and not Nina, is the focus – the only two moments when he is alone, strengthening our sense of him as a ‘real’ ghost rather than a figment of Nina’s grieving imagination. The first occurs shortly after his return. Nina asks if she may kiss him. The kiss is filmed so that it is Jamie’s face that we see. He is totally lost in the kiss; Nina, however, is disturbed by his cold lips. When she leaves him to lock the back door, there is a rather long beat in which we observe Jamie huddled on the floor, thinking. He follows her outside to talk to her, the only point in the film when he openly explains his reasons for returning. Although he tells her that he could no longer bear her pain, he ends his speech with a joke, which defuses the intensity of the scene. This is a strategy he will also employ with the songs he sings.

At the opposite end of the story’s arc, Nina confronts Jamie about her need for a life. She refuses Jamie’s offer to leave her and go back with the ghosts; but when she leaves the flat to meet Mark, the ghosts return to Jamie, who is still (and again) sitting dejectedly on the floor. The ghosts ask ‘Is it time?’. With tears in his eyes, Jamie replies, ‘I think so, yes’. When Nina returns to the flat, Jamie is gone. Significantly, these two scenes which focus on Jamie are the two moments when his reasons for returning to Nina are most clear to the audience.

As may already be intimated from the above discussion, each of the three principal characters has a ‘chorus’ of supporting characters – Nina has a large one, composed of her sister, her therapist, her English language student, her boss, her handyman, her plumber and her pest controller; they are clearly the most differentiated, as she is the central character. Mark has his group. But Jamie’s chorus, his video-watching ghosts, is actually realized as an orchestra, connecting with the most important source of symbolism in the film, the music.

Music is central to Nina and Jamie’s lives and love; they share a passion for music as for each other – we learn that their first night together was spent playing duets. The different types of music in the film differ in the subtlety with which they are deployed as symbols, and the most obvious symbolism affects not only the audience, but the characters in the film. The diegetic songs are a covert message from Jamie to Nina; the audience may recognize that message before Nina
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5 Ó 1959, House of Bryant Publications, USA. Acuff-Rose Music Ltd, London W1. Used by permission of Music Sales Ltd. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured.

6 A similar, though even more oblique, reference may be found in ‘A Case of You’. In an unsung verse of the song, the lyrics refer to the blue light of the television. One of the recurrent visual images in the film is the ghosts huddled around the television, illuminated by flickering blue light. The final scene, as they watch Nina and Mark, is backlit in blue, as if they have turned on the television in her flat.

does, but she will eventually realize its meaning, even if the music must be stripped away first.

On the surface, these popular songs seem to function like the Hollywood musical number, a straightforward expression of the couple’s joy at being reunited, as they are presented in a cluster soon after Jamie’s return. The songs do not dilate time so much as compress it, revealing the depth and history of Nina and Jamie’s relationship to the audience through the metaphor of musical performance.

Nina initiates only one of the songs, the first. It is Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’. The lyrics, describing someone so deeply in love that she could ‘drink a case’ of her lover, are clearly appropriate for Nina; as Jamie joins in, he seems more concerned with the musical aspects of the song. His strong sense of pitch steadies her rather wayward tuning, and the fact that they have sung together before, perhaps even this very song, is apparent from his cringe of familiarity when she erupts in a loud, off-key whoop. Their performance reflects their personal characteristics – Nina’s free-spirited disarray against Jamie’s pernickety dedication to order, as well as his higher sense of conventional musicality. Their eventual convergence towards a common key, despite these differences, and their amused acceptance of each other’s musical foibles mirror their extra-musical relationship.

Jamie also sings fragments of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s ‘Raining in My Heart’, made famous by Buddy Holly. The first few lines of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ allude to his return out of concern, while ‘Raining in My Heart’ emphasizes the cloud imagery:

      The sun is out, the sky is blue, there’s not a cloud to spoil the view   
      But it’s raining, raining in my heart.
      The weatherman says clear today, he doesn’t know you’ve gone
      And it’s raining, raining in my heart.

Jamie’s version, in fact, elides several different lines from the original, picking up the theme of the weatherman predicting a cloudless day, despite the inclement conditions in the singer’s heart. Thus, he includes more direct reference to clouds and rain in the two lines performed, and he leaves the song on the brink of the bridge, which sets the words ‘Oh, misery’ to long, drawn-out, drooping phrases, long signifiers of anguish in western music. Although Jamie does not sing those lines, anyone who knows the song will probably fill in the blanks.6 Despite the downbeat lyrics, the predominant impact of the scene is one of playfulness.

The same paradox is present in the most fully developed of the pop songs, Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio’s ‘Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’. The scene begins with a shot of Jamie through the window and, as he closes it, we hear a bowed cello introduction. A cut to the
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7 Suspensions are pitches that begin as consonant notes in a chord, but as they are held and the notes of the chord move on, they create dissonances. These dissonances demand a resolution, by a movement (usually downward) to become consonant in another chord. 9 Richard Dyer, ‘Entertainment and utopia’, Only Entertainment (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 17–34; reprinted from Movie, vol. 24 (Spring 1977).





8 ‘Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’. Words and music by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, Ó 1965, Saturday Music Inc./ Seasons Four Music Corp., USA. Reproduced by permission of EMI Music Publishing Ltd, London WC2H 0EA.

interior finds him on a piano stool, holding his cello like a guitar as he plucks out a bassline, and he sings as Nina dances around the flat, using various household items as percussion. She also interjects backing vocals on the words ‘Jamie, baby’, creating long, intense suspensions7 against his melody. These suspensions are present in the popular Walker Brothers’ version, but almost lost in that lush arrangement; in this minimal performance, everything is stripped away but the two voices and the bassline, focusing attention on these dissonances. As the song builds, instruments enter the soundtrack which are not present in the source-music setting of Nina’s living room – first a tambourine, then strings and drums. Again, the lyrics speak of his awareness of her emotional state while also providing the image of clouds, rain and tears.

     Loneliness is the coat you wear,
     A deep shade of blue is always there
     The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore,
     The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky,
     The tears are always clouding your eyes,
     When you’re without love (baby).

     Emptiness is the place you’re in,
     No more to lose and no more to win.
          (repeat chorus)

Richard Dyer influentially described the musical number as a ‘utopian’ moment, a moment which presents to the audience a world which (momentarily) fills the gaps in their lives – most obviously the extravagant Busby Berkeley number of the 1930s offered an excess of luxury to a poverty-stricken Depression-era audience.9 The ‘numbers’ in Truly, Madly, Deeply reverse this construction, presenting the audience with a view of the gap in Nina’s life; in this luxurious display of their intimacy, we can understand the emptiness left in her by Jamie’s absence. We are seeing glimpses of Nina’s relationship with Jamie, at least as she remembers it; the numbers literally symbolize a time of harmony, and the effortlessness with which Nina and Jamie move in and out of music demonstrates their ease with using music as communication. But Nina is also the ‘audience’ for Jamie’s performance: the musical number is a nostalgic utopia for her, the sugar-coating on the pill that he has returned to present to her – namely, that she must give him up.

All the pop songs Jamie sings amplify his indications that his return was motivated by his concern for Nina and his inability to bear her pain. Paradoxically, this motivation is both emphasized and masked by their performance. Jamie’s concern over Nina’s grieving is laid bare in lyrics directly addressing loneliness and pain that also connect with recurrent visual imagery of clouds. The long suspensions (heard and
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10 Pablo Neruda, The Captain’s Verses Ó 1972 Pablo Neruda and Donald D. Walsh. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Company.

unheard) add twinges of musical ‘pain’, and although it might be overreaching, it is tempting to point out the similarity of the narrative to the musical construction of a suspension. Nina was ‘consonant’, or content and harmonious, in her relationship with Jamie. After his death, she cannot let him go (sustaining their relationship) while the rest of the world moved on, leaving her ‘suspended’. The resolution is her move into another relationship with Mark.

Despite the encoded pain in the music and the sometimes quite obvious intention signalled by the lyrics, the exuberant performances and even the very familiarity of these songs partially submerge the message. Because they are so familiar, or at least of such a familiar type, we, including Nina, perhaps do not pay as much attention to the lyrics as to the musical interpretation. When Jamie feels Nina is ready to listen, he dispenses with music; he recites a poem that he has learned in Spanish (he had been having Spanish lessons while he was in limbo). It is Pablo Neruda’s ‘The Dead Woman’.

      If you, my love, my beloved, if you have died
      The rain will fall on my soul, all day, all night.
      All the leaves will fall on my breast and
      My feet will want to march to where you are sleeping
      But I will go on living.

Against the wishes of her heart, Nina understands that she must let Jamie go and ‘go on living.’

Even while Nina is bashing out ‘Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ on the piano, a book with the name Bach in large letters is clearly visible on the music stand. It is a signal, if one were needed, that Bach’s music is a central part of Nina’s life – later, in her personality sketch of herself to Mark, she will declare her love of Bach as one of her defining qualities. While her relationship with Mark, the art therapist, is played out between and behind and through the visual symbol of the glass walls imposed by Jamie’s death, Nina’s relationship with Jamie, the musician, is traced through the music of J.S. Bach.

The union of Jamie the cellist and Nina the recreational pianist is symbolized by the Adagio of Bach’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in G Minor (BWV 1029). Three scenes, each at a key juncture of the plot, define their relationship through their instruments.

The first introduces Jamie as a memory. It occurs at the beginning of the film, at the moment when we realize that he is dead. In voiceover Nina describes her day and Jamie’s place in it while we see her going through the motions of everyday existence, half in a daze, guided by Jamie’s simple instructions. Also in voiceover, her therapist asks, ‘Nina – Jamie. When was it he died?’. Although we see Nina at her bathroom sink, obeying Jamie’s voice which tells her to brush her teeth, she reacts to the apparent disruption of the therapist’s
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non-diegetic voice as if she has heard it. She sadly turns off the light, and the sudden black-out becomes the background to the opening credits. Jamie is seen in black-and-white against a blank dark background, playing the sonata. As he reaches up for a high position on the neck of the cello at the melodic peak of the melody, the image freezes and the camera pulls back to show a black-and-white publicity photo of Jamie, framed in ivy on Nina’s bedroom wall. At the moment of this cinematic ‘death’, as he is trapped behind the glass wall of the picture frame, Nina fills in Jamie’s missing ‘voice’ with her own. The camera moves through her flat, and eventually discovers her sitting at the piano, playing the accompaniment as she sings the cello part.

The second scene is Jamie’s return. Nina sits at the piano, this time playing the melody and the bass line of the sonata. She breaks off, tries to continue, but breaks off again and sits helplessly at the piano. Very softly, the next note is heard on a cello, and Nina sits up, startled. The cello note grows louder and stronger, and she tentatively begins to play the accompaniment. As the cello and piano continue together, Nina laughs disbelievingly, the music flows more naturally, and the camera slowly pans around the piano to include the window, bright with late afternoon sun. Silhouetted against the sun, which suggestively backlights his blonde hair, is Jamie, playing his cello. The framing of Jamie over Nina’s shoulder is a symbol that, like the sonata, reinforces the centrality of this scene by reflecting forward and backward in the film: in the previous scene, the cello was framed over Nina’s shoulder while she wept over his absence; later in the film, this visual symbol is echoed verbally when Nina tells Jamie that she feels she carries him on her shoulder always.

The third scene is at the end of the film, when Nina realizes that Jamie has gone. Now Jamie sings without Nina’s accompaniment. As Nina returns to her flat after having spent the night with Mark, the cello alone plays softly in the background with exaggerated reverberation, emphasizing a sense of emptiness. Nina vainly calls out for Jamie, and we see his photograph on the wall, surrounded by ivy no longer quite as green as it was at the beginning.

The connection of this Adagio with Jamie’s presence is highlighted by the scene in which Nina thinks she sees him at the South Bank Centre. The music tells us that it is not Jamie. We hear Bach, but not the sonata. Instead, it is a Sarabande for solo cello. When Nina sees a fair-haired man in a green shirt and long navy coat playing the cello, her mind immediately interprets these familiar signs as ‘Jamie’, although as she draws closer, she sees it is someone else. The scene then changes to the exterior of her flat, and as Nina looks through the window, she sees Jamie playing the cello. He is playing the same Sarabande, and the music, unbroken, elides the two scenes, but the meaning seems to shift. At the Centre, it signals that the cellist is not Jamie – he is not, after all, playing ‘their tune’; but the fact that Jamie
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11 David Pearson, working on this film from the angle of its depiction of classical musicians, found this music ‘excruciating’ in its anempathetic response to Jamie’s feelings, as Pearson interpreted the music’s emotional affect as ‘triumphant’. (David Pearson, MA Thesis, University of Southampton, 1996). This reading might at first seem contradictory to one of ‘resignation’, but the divergence can be explained. Although reading the music as ‘triumphant’ does not negate my functional interpretation of the scene, it does demonstrate how subjective and slippery musical semiotics can be. The slow, steady block chords are coded as ‘dignified’ (which works for resignation or triumph), but the melody has a complicated structure which can be read differently, depending upon which element you focus on. The notes that sound on the strong beats form a slow, steady, descending pattern, leading to an interpretation of resignation; the notes on the weak beats trace leaping arcs that may be read as ‘triumphant’, springing away from the weight of the descending line.
12 Normally, the pitch heard when playing a string is the ‘fundamental’, or the pitch produced by the vibration of the entire string. The richness of the sound comes from the fact that the string also vibrates in smaller sections, providing a series of higher ‘overtones’. Harmonics are produced by emphasizing these higher overtones and muting the fundamental and lower harmonics; the result is a thin, glassy sound. They are sounds without ‘body’ – rather like a ghost.

is playing the same piece as the one she heard suggests that he is still connected with her, that he knows what she has heard. Indeed, when she enters the flat, Nina tells Jamie she feels he is with her all day. However, the solo Sarabande also sends another signal about their relationship.

The relationship between the piano and the cello, like the relationship between Nina and Jamie, is transformed through the music of Bach. At the beginning of the film, we hear only the sonata; Nina is accompaniment to Jamie’s voice, as her life has become subordinate to his memory. As Nina re-enters the living world and becomes more involved with Mark, she becomes increasingly detached from the sonata. Jamie plays either the solo sarabande, establishing him as an individual separate from Nina, or he plays Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major with his ghostly orchestra, reinforcing his membership in the ‘choir invisible’. Nina acquires a new piece of music, Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in G Minor (S 1058). The concerto is first heard when Nina spends the night with Mark, her first definitive step away from Jamie; it is heard again at the end when she goes away with Mark and the ghosts file across her living room to the window to watch them leave. The musical affect of the Andante of this concerto is one of resignation,11 combining slow, stately block string chords with a winding, descending line on the piano. Nina’s ‘voice’, the piano, is now in the foreground, supported by the chorus of strings that represents Jamie and his ghosts.

It is worth briefly noting the relationships between the four Bach works in the film. The two principle pieces, the sonata and the concerto are in G minor; the Brandenburg Concerto is in the parallel major, G major, meaning that the tonic, or home pitch, is the same. Though the Sarabande is in C minor, C is a very closely related key to G, and therefore there is a tonal coherence to the Bach elements of the score. Further, and most intriguingly, the sonata is generally considered an early ‘draft’ of the Brandenburg Concerto; indeed, the first movements of the two works are practically the same. The second movement of the sonata (the one used in the film) is, however, unique, as the Brandenburg has only a brief transition between its first and third movements. Therefore there is a very strong connection between the two pieces of music most closely associated with Jamie’s state of ‘death’; the sonata which symbolizes his passing, and the Brandenburg which symbolizes his belonging to the orchestra of ghosts.

The identification of Nina with the piano and Jamie with strings is carried over into the underscore. Barrington Pheloung’s music is better discussed in terms of timbre, or tone colour, than in terms of theme. There is nothing resembling a theme or melody in the underscore. String harmonics12 in a middle register are sustained beneath isolated piano notes that cluster into fragmentary groupings which hardly
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply

13 Though the piano and strings are the predominant timbres, sometimes cor anglais or oboe takes over for either instrument. Both the cor anglais and oboe are instruments traditionally associated with loneliness because of their ‘haunting’, melancholy timbres.

14 This texture and timbre is typical of Pheloung’s style in general, although it is exaggerated in this instance. If this interpretation then seems to be overreaching, it is worth noting that Pheloung is most famous as the composer of the Inspector Morse television detective series, in which he interpolates Morse code messages, demonstrating his penchant for musical symbolism. Inspector Morse also constantly and prominently uses opera, both as an emotional release for its main character and as a source of code cracking. (My thanks to Victoria Vaughan for drawing my attention to the operatic conventions of Inspector Morse.)





15 Perhaps a remnant of Truly, Madly, Deeply‘s origin as a BBC television production lies in the fact that the music fades out before the end of the piece is reached, and indeed before the credits have finished rolling – a symbolic incompletion, a space for a possible voiceover announcement, or simply a mistake at the mixing desk?



qualify as phrases13 – they have no traditional musical grammar to give them coherence. The resultant sound is harmonically indecisive and rhythmically amorphous. The tentative, isolated piano notes reflect Nina’s solitary existence, proceeding somewhat aimlessly; the ‘melody’ wanders without direction as does Nina. The string harmonics are ‘insubstantial’ and ghostly, but they support the piano, giving it at least a degree of harmonic stability, as Jamie’s tooth-brushing and door-locking instructions support Nina and help her get through the day.14

This delicate, subtle underscore is the glue of the film; it appears almost solely to carry across scenes, attaching one to another over an edit, sometimes with the most tenuous of musical cues – some are only three or four notes. Relatively few scenes have underscoring throughout, and those that do have little dialogue. The scene which most prominently features the underscore is Jamie’s return. Nina’s realization of Jamie’s presence occurs in silence, as they both have stopped playing the sonata; but when he pulls her up into his arms, he is accompanied by a brief moment of underscore – significantly, the only phrase of the underscore in the entire film that comes to a solid harmonic resolution. Jamie’s physical presence is thus underlined by the substantial confirmation of the music.

After this early resolution, establishing that there could indeed be a resolution, the underscore is in a constant state of suspension throughout the body of the film. The final resolution of the suspension in the underscore comes not in the score itself, but – like Nina’s narrative resolution – in the keyboard sonata. As in the Pheloung underscore, strings support a delicate piano melody, but now the melody (Nina’s ‘voice,’ the piano) has developed a strong, coherent phrasing, and the strings have become more substantial and greater in number (as have Jamie’s ghosts), proceeding in steady, pulsing block chords. Both melody and harmony are directed and purposeful.15

The impressionistic score may, on the surface, sound as far removed from Bach as it does from the pop songs, and as the Bach and pop songs do from each other, but on more abstract musical levels there are similarities. The underscore shares instrumental forces with the Bach, as has already been noted, and the timbral exposure of ‘melody’ can also be found in the a cappella rendering of the pop songs – the fragility of a single musical line, or voice, with little or no support. Pheloung’s arrangement of the most fully realized of the pop songs, ‘Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, emphasizes an element that was almost inaudible in the familiar version – the sustained harmonic suspensions – and which is a feature of both the underscore and the Bach. The underscore thus bridges the diversity of the other musics in the film, functionally and stylistically.

Symbolically, however, the Bach is the bridge – or rather, in the context of the film, the glass wall – separating the world of the living
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  from the domain of the dead. Like Jamie, the Bach slides between the two, and between diegetic and non-diegetic, arcing across scenes and spaces. The two most prominent such arcs are, significantly, at times when Nina is most torn between Jamie and life. When she sees the cellist in the street, she is out with Mark; the music begins offscreen, distracting both her and the audience into seeking Jamie’s presence. At first, she thinks the busker is Jamie, but even though he is not, we receive a visual explanation of the music onscreen. The music then continues non-diegetically as Nina is shown coming home alone, and, at the end of the scene, we are anchored to the music once more as she looks through the window to see Jamie playing. The second arc occurs during a visit to the therapist. Nina pretends to be sceptical about the possibility of the return of a loved one after death, and a full orchestral rendering of the third Brandenburg Concerto begins non-diegetically (apparently) as she wonders, if someone does come back – ‘Then what?’. A sudden cut shows Nina at the window, leaning out for a breeze, and the camera’s slow track down gradually reveals the ghost orchestra playing in her living room (no pun intended), finally anchoring the music in the diegesis. This scene, as discussed above, is a mirror of Jamie’s earlier closing of the window to perform ‘Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic instruments in that song – not to mention the bowed introduction, which Jamie could not possibly have performed, first because he is shown at the window, and second because even projecting backward from the edit, he has not had time to set aside his bow and put the cello on his lap – links that important song, like the Bach, with the suspension between this world and the next.

One question which arises inexorably is, as well-integrated and meaningful as this music is in this film, why this particular constellation of music? The answer seems to lie in character development, and particularly the development of Nina and Jamie as a couple. Music is the thing they most seem to share; almost their entire communication is built upon music, and they must, therefore, share a common vocabulary of music, the equivalent of a secret language of pet names. Their choices also reflect larger cultural connotations of the music.

While some might find it jarring to move from Bach to Buddy Holly, Jamie and Nina do so fluently and without self-consciousness. Throughout the film there is not so much a tension between pop culture and what might be regarded as ‘art’ culture, as a rejection of their difference. Jamie’s canny imitation of Bob Dylan’s and Buddy Holly’s idiosyncratic singing styles shows a high degree of pop cultural competency on the part of this professional cellist, but that is part of his character’s delineation. Jamie and Nina are baby boomers, so the early rock-and-roll of Holly, the socially conscious poetry of
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16 Their egalitarian approach to music is also reflected in the videos chosen by the ghosts. Although all the films are classics, they range from 1940s romantic melodrama (Brief Encounter) to sixties rebellion (Five Easy Pieces), from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen, and I Vitelloni is replaced by Pinocchio without protest.

Dylan, the confessional singer-songwriter style of Mitchell, and the polished, almost operatic pop of the Walker Brothers were all formative in the musical tastes of their generation. In fact, their familiarity (and ours) with this music is a shorthand method of reinforcing the minimal clues we have about what sort of people they are – bright, well-educated, politically and socially liberal.

While the pop songs encode generation and personality, the Bach is a class marker. Bach is one of the great masters of the musical canon, rivalled only by Beethoven. But while Beethoven’s music is dynamic and energetic, culturally associated with struggle and the emergence of the individual from the Enlightenment to Romanticism, Bach’s music is considered the height of intellectual rigour and spiritual devotion, far removed from such physical, human, bodily concerns. Although Jamie and Nina might come by Bach through their parents or through school, they do not treat his music with the awe-struck respect which they were probably taught. Bach is not just for intellectual contemplation of genius, nor even for spiritual enlightenment or religious devotion; it is a part of everyday living, breathing, loving and dancing.16

As an individual, Jamie is identified with music in a way we more commonly associate with female characters. He is not a traditional romantic hero, the composer or the virtuoso controlling the music, but a sensitive interpreter. Jamie’s voice is his cello, as is represented in the deployment of the sonata and suggested by the timbral similarity between the instrument and the actor’s bass-baritone. But further, Nina explicitly associates Jamie’s cello with his body, despite its obviously feminine shape. When missing him, she cradles the cello in her arms, caressing its sides, and when irritated with him, she plucks its strings idly, then stops their vibration with the flat of her hand, effectively silencing his voice – yet another symbolic reflection.

The symbolism in Truly, Madly, Deeply is never so esoteric that the attentive viewer cannot divine it. The symbolism heightens the drama, but never becomes so obvious that it distracts from the story (with the possible exception of the moment when Nina almost hysterically declares that his cello is Jamie). The film is a delicate balance of fantasy and realism, and the symbolism is the fulcrum on which it balances.

The music in this film is connected with a network of verbal and visual imagery. But music is not merely another set of symbols; we could do without the rats or the clouds or perhaps even the glass walls, but extract the music, and we know significantly less about Nina and practically nothing about Jamie. Jamie is clearly the more musical of the two. Nina’s musical expression is completely wrapped up in him. After her onscreen participation in the pop songs, about a third of the way through the film, her participation in music is restricted to listening as she begins to move away from Jamie; her musical action migrates definitively to the non-diegetic realm,
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply

  suspended in the underscore and resolved in the keyboard concerto. The music is crucial to our understanding of these characters and how they relate to one another.

Truly, Madly, Deeply is not a musical in ordinary terms, but neither would the music be recognized as a classical film score. The underscore is so transparent it is almost invisible (or rather inaudible), lightly eliding scenes and providing a symbolism that can only truly be decoded by those with musical knowledge – although whether they recognize it or not, the impact will be felt by anyone who has lived in contact with western music, since the symbolism plays on such basic musical grammar. More overt expression is taken over by music written for other purposes. Despite the protests of some film music composers, fans and scholars who feel that music must be written for a specific purpose to carry out its function adequately, this film reveals beautifully how pre-existing music can serve a story better than some Romantically conceived, organically composed film score. The narrative needs the weight of recognizable music, cultural baggage intact, to produce the impact that it does. This composite score rises above the level of motives and harmony, even rhythm and orchestration; it is composed of histories – musical, cultural, and personal – and thus has a resonance that no single composer could ever hope to achieve.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the First Critical Musicology Conference in Salford, England, on 1 April 1995. I would like to thank Jeanice Brooks, Bill Marshall, and Victoria Vaughan for their thoughtful comments on previous drafts.
Screen 38:1 Spring 1997 · Robynn Stilwell · Symbol, narrative and the musics of Truly, Madly, Deeply