2015, R, 118 mins.
2015, R, 118 mins.
Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet / Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird / Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard / Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird / Jake Lacy as Richard / Carrie Brownstein as Genevieve Cantrell / Cory Michael Smith as Tommy / John Magaro as Dannie / Kevin Crowley as Fred Haymes
Directed by Todd Haynes / Written by Phyllis Nagy, based on the book THE PRICE OF SALT by Patricia Highsmith
Even though Todd Haynes' CAROL is set decades in the past, his thoroughly moving and touchingly performed period drama speaks to many modern truths about the manner that society imposes narrow-minded rules on certain individuals as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.
It tells a story
of a lesbian romance, but that simplistic descriptor doesn’t really
adequately relay what the film is about.
Haynes is wise enough of a filmmaker to approach this material as a
love story (regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple presented)
first and foremost, but he uses that as a framework to tell the larger
tale of how 1950’s cultural/social norms shunned gay relationships.
In many respects, CAROL is a crushingly sad portrait of people
being forced to hide who they are behind closed doors, but it’s also
uplifting for how it also evokes the courage of some women to accept their
homosexuality and embrace it during a time when it was demonized as an
abnormal psychological illness.
CAROL is based on
Patricia Highsmith’s romance novel THE PRICE OF SALT, released in 1952
and published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” (out of obvious fear
due to the story’s lesbian romance contained within, something of which
was seldom written about during the era, let alone openly discussed in
public). As a work of gay
fiction, the book has been celebrated as a landmark and audacious
achievement for its ahead-of-its-time handling of its subject matter.
It only seems logical that it would catch the attention of Haynes
– a filmmaker best known for exploring the repressive sides of his
characters and the harsh and critical worlds that they desperately try to
inhabit. Under a different
and less astutely sensitive filmmaker, CAROL could have reached a level of
tawdry melodrama, but Haynes' subtle and understated direction here allows
for a more introspective approach to Highsmith’s underlining material.
He never judges these lesbians characters, but instead asks us to
bare witness to them as they exist in the moment of their tumultuous
times, and the fact that the film never feels ostensibly or
condescendingly preachy is to its credit.
CAROL opens with
a gorgeously realized tracking shot, which breathlessly introduces us to
the world of early 1950’s New York City with a near dreamlike aura and
fascination. We meet Carol (Cate Blanchett), an affluent, but recently
divorced woman that’s enraptured in a vile custody battle with her
husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). For
the most part, Carol is a headstrong woman, but deep down she’s
unendingly lonely and desperate for human contact.
She locks eyes one day with a much younger department store worker
Therese (Rooney Mara), a young girl trying to make it as a photographer in
the Big Apple. Even though
she’s poised to be married to her boyfriend, Therese seems as
emotionally lost as Carol. When
the pair meets while Therese helps Carol with the purchase of a gift for
her daughter an ethereal chemistry develops between them.
When they part ways they simply can’t stop thinking of each other.
In many respects,
both women are feeling suffocated by their damaged relationships with men,
which is arguably why they feel a strong sense of longing to be together.
Carol decides to ask Therese out for lunch as a thank-you for her
assistance at the department store earlier, and upon this second meeting
– and more afterwards – their mutual sexual attraction to the other
grows by the day. Carol’s
miserable home life becomes more erratic when her husband wants to seek full
custody of their children, citing Carol’s lesbianism as soul grounds for
her unfit stature as a suitable maternal figure.
Overwhelmed by such legal woes, Carol decides to escape out of town
on a cross-country road trip with Therese, who very easily decides to join
in (despite the consternation of her flabbergasted husband-to-be).
As their long journey continues Carol and Therese grow even more
intimate with each other, and within no time they act on their deeply
on 16mm film (such a rarity these days) by Ed Lachman, the evocatively
grainy, yet beautiful aesthetic sheen of CAROL looks positively
sensational throughput. Haynes
doesn’t spend an awful amount of time lingering on his period specific
production design (he plainly lets his camera inhabit it), but he
nevertheless captures the rich textures and vibrant colors of yesteryear,
creating a look and feel for 50’s era New York that compliments the
dramatic underpinnings of the story without needlessly distracting from
it. Haynes has always
had a deep appreciation and affinity for the past in his work, and CAROL
is certainly no exception. Within
a scant few minutes into the film we become instantly transfixed in the
world of this film and its times, which allows our full immersion in
the main characters’ thorny emotional predicaments that they find themselves
in later on. The manner that
CAROL is stunningly designed while not drawing needless attention to its
artifice is rather noteworthy.
Of course, the
film lives and breathes by the inherent strengths of its two lead actors,
and the always reliable and stalwart presence of Cate Blanchett does
wonders at showcasing Carol’s authoritative and confident social
presence while simultaneously revealing her to be a woman that’s
mentally unraveling on the inside by the conformist pressures of her society.
The way Blanchett suggests a woman of limitless stern poise that has
a softer and sensitive side proves what a supreme acting challenge it was
for her. Mara has, I think,
the toughest acting challenge between the two, mostly because she has to
play a meek and meager woman that has intimacy and trust issues, but then
later achieves a stirring sense of self-actualization with her
acknowledgement of her homosexuality and her attraction towards
Carol…and all while facing insurmountable societal norms of the period.
Watching Mara’s quietly powerful performance here in direct
comparison to her tenaciously daring work in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON
TATTOO cements her as a fiercely resolute young actress not swayed by
subject matter or character types. The
rich variety of her performances is quite remarkable to witness.
though, hold CAROL back from achieving greatness, like the fact that the
film’s male characters are largely underwritten and somewhat one-note.
Harge, for example, is mostly presented as a petulantly childish
hooligan that threatens Carol and her livelihood…mostly out of petty
ignorance. That’s not to
say that this loathsome man deserves our pity in the film, but Haynes and
screenwriter Phyllis Nagy don’t seem to take many chances in terms of
asking audience members to identify or perhaps understand where his
abhorrent behavior is coming from. A
few other characters, like Carol’s ex-lover (played resoundingly well by
Sara Paulson) and Therese’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy) seem to be sprinkled
into the narrative when it’s deemed necessary or convenient.
Therese as a character herself – despite Mara’s intoxicating
performance – is curiously and oddly enigmatic in terms of backstory.
We really grow to learn relatively nothing about her family, where
she came from, and so forth. Maybe
this was intentional from a storytelling perspective, but when compared
directly to Carol, Therese feels somewhat undeveloped as a fully realized
Still, as a deeply effective tale of repression, living with carefully guarded secrets, and muting one’s real burning desires in life, CAROL is undeniably engrossing. It reminds viewers that in the not-too-distant past women were not giving the relative freedom of emerging from the lesbian closet with open and welcoming arms from society at large. CAROL is an eerie evocation of how two people that yearn to be together learn how to be together, but grow to realize that their mutual courtship has an insurmountable number of barriers impeding their journey to happiness. There’s a starkness by which Haynes presents this story of gay love that would have been next to impossible to pull off decades ago, let alone at the time Highsmith’s novel was written. In many respects, CAROL champions its literary source material as the trail blazing and courageous work that it most certainly was…and as a love story (gay or straight) it’s as passionately rendered as any.