Release: Friday, November 20, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Phyllis Nagy
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Carol is a conventional romance saved by less conventional characters and a fairly satisfying resolution. It may be happily ever after (sort of), but as far as the population at large in the 1950s was concerned, no such thing existed for those identifying as homosexual. Todd Haynes’ sixth feature is an intensely well-acted affair but I just can’t help feeling less and less enthusiastic about it as time presses on.
Technically speaking Carol is an astonishing cinematic achievement. There’s absolutely no way this film was made in 2015: its milieu, painstakingly realized to the point where Cate Blanchett, playing the titular woman who falls for a much younger girl, and to a lesser degree Rooney Mara, her lover, are classic Hollywood starlets rather than reincarnations thereof. It’s an experience in which oppression is palpable, the pursuit of happiness is more akin to the fulfillment of fantasy. The edifice of New York City is less physical as it is ideological: it’s worth everyone’s time to condemn homosexuality, apparently.
You could accuse Carol of lacking imagination with its ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality, but that’s not the major concern here — mostly because that was very much the case for these women, characters created from the mind of suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith in her seminal romance ‘The Price of Salt.’ No, that reality is very much powerful — it was almost quite literally Carol Aird and Therese Belivet against the world. Highsmith even wrote the book under a pseudonym because of the supposed radical content. Indeed she felt like it was her against the world.
Bravery in writing notwithstanding, Carol fails to mine great depths. It’s a testament to the power of its central leads that I was able to invest so much of my energy empathizing with them as the significance of their togetherness grew more profound — purportedly — with each passing vignette. Carol spends more time suggesting the ‘will they-won’t they’ tension that has come to define contemporary romances and romantic comedies. Of course, this film aspires to more than just showing how good two bodies can look together.
It’s not so much the burgeoning romance isn’t believable — Blanchett and Mara are too good at their craft for that to be the case — it’s just not that interesting. Working at a department store during the holiday season, Therese is a woman on the brink of adulthood. She’s someone who’s largely unsatisfied with her current romantic life. One day she spots an elegant-looking blonde woman across the store, and the two end up locking eyes for a prolonged couple of seconds. It’s love at first sight. (I know, I know.) Carol asks the nervous-looking girl behind the counter what kind of gift she should buy for her daughter; Therese suggests a train set since that was her favorite toy as a child. The transaction is made and life seems to go on as normal immediately afterward, except for the fact Carol leaves behind her posh leather gloves on the counter . . . as one does in these sorts of movies.
It’s not long before Carol is inviting her new friend out to lunch and then to come visit her at home, where she is now living alone as she’s in the middle of a difficult divorce from her controlling husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). The personification of intolerance thanks to Chandler’s ability to once again become That Guy We Don’t Like, Harge is confident he’ll be awarded full custody of their child when he learns that Carol’s history with a childhood friend named Abby (Sarah Paulson), isn’t the sum totality of her interest in women.
Phyllis Nagy‘s adaptation of the 1952 novel is nothing if not enjoyably predictable. Her narrative bent takes a backseat to exquisite production values though. From the costume design to the warmth of Edward Lachman’s cinematography, the film is one of the more visually arresting pieces I’ve seen in some time. It should go without saying the romance is confidently handled; the fact it involves two women — and an age gap — is immaterial. But other than the people (read: actresses) involved, there’s nothing truly remarkable about this story. The net effect is that, while the film is anything but shallow, I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing on the outside looking in. I felt too distanced.
Recommendation: Carol offers viewers two fine performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the former of which has always been reliable and the latter becoming ever more watchable as she continues to shift genres and role types. It’s a movie you go to see for the performances, no doubt about it.
Running Time: 118 mins.
Quoted: “Just when it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes.”
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