WRITTEN REVIEW – Carol (2015)

Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson & Kyle Chander
Music: Carter Burwell
Certificate: 15
Release Date: November 27th 2015

Over the past decade films and media depicting LGBT-themes and relationships have become more and more mainstream in the face of a more progressive and accepting culture. We may point and laugh at most facets of LGBT discrimination because of how silly they were (for example, Batgirl was ONLY introduced in DC Comic’s “Batman” series because they didn’t want people thinking Batman and Robin were gay) but let’s not forget that a lot of that is very recent history and it’s still considered a taboo subject amongst people. Films have been more embracing of LGBTs with many films centred around the subject being critical and awards hits such as ‘Brokeback Mountain‘, ‘Pride‘, ‘Milk‘, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour‘ and this year’s ‘Love Is Strange‘.

As a result, it was only a matter of time before Patricia Highsmith’s ground-breaking literary classic from 1952, “The Price of Salt” was adapted into a feature film. Highsmith (writing under the pseudonym Claire Morgan who also wrote the classic thriller “Strangers on a Train”) included numerous biographical elements from her own life to craft the narrative and despite finding difficulties in initially getting it published, ‘The Price of Salt’ is considered essential reading nowadays. Can the movie, ‘Carol‘ directed by Todd Haynes find the same type of acclaim?
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Set in 1950s New York, Therese Belivet (Mara) is working at a huge department store around Christmas time. There she meets Carol Aird (Blanchett) an older woman who is wanting to buy a present for her daughter and the two start to strike up a close friendship. Carol is also currently undergoing divorce proceedings with her husband, Harge (Chandler) and is attempting to gain custody of her daughter. Over the Holidays Therese and Carol travel across the country and the two start to develop strong romantic feelings. But can Carol overcome the drama from her previous marriage and is Therese even mature enough to understand these emotions?

While outside of the film the same-sex romance will play a key selling point for the movie as well as how it’s perceived and known about by the general public, ‘Carol‘, in context, plays that angle in a very subdued kind of way. First and foremost, this is a romance about two people and their gender feels rather incidental. If anything, the age-difference is considered to be the more taboo subject throughout the narrative as Carol has been in many previous long-term relationships, including extramarital affairs with other women, whereas Therese kinda-sorta-maybe has a boyfriend who wants to get married despite Therese not having a clue what she wants out of life. Carol is world-weary and damaged and Therese is uncertain and, in a few respects immature.
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Since sexual-taboos don’t factor much into the movie’s story it allows the narrative to become more character-focused and is based on whether or not these two characters will THEMSELVES be able to sustain this relationship as opposed to society disapproving of it in the 1950s setting. As a result, while one scene where Therese talks to her kinda-sorta-maybe boyfriend about whether or not he’s loved another man before feels oddly out of place, we have a more character-focused story and it’s a simple story at that.

Carol‘ is a slow-burn movie with relatively low stakes and it progresses at a fine pace where Therese and Carol meet up regularly over the Holidays and start to bond. The dialogue is ladened with sub-text and relatively low-key with very little affection between the two women coming from what is spoken. Whether or not the chemistry between the two leading ladies was instigated by the script, was a result of their performances or a combination of the two is hard to discern but the end result is one of the more grounded on-screen relationships of 2015. But in the end, we also have a relationship that doesn’t seem to sustain the 2 hour runtime. Despite Carol and Therese’s obvious chemistry, the two don’t talk about their interests or what they have in common. Therese is a hopeful photographer living in a small apartment and Carol is the wife of a wealthy businessman. There ain’t a lot of common ground there so just what is drawing the two together when they hardly talk about their interests feels a bit strange, especially with a 2 hour runtime with a lot of non-verbal exchanges.
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Or maybe that’s the point. This relationship is primarily a result of impulse. The two don’t quite know what’s making them feel compelled to the other, especially Therese who has never felt love to this extent before so the relationship seems to have a “just go with it” feel. But there isn’t much of a ticking-clock element so it would have been nice if there was a scene or two where they discuss an area where they share an interest. It’s a tough call, but when you have a 118 minute romance movie I think the time management of the story could have been better handled.

But the two actors are carrying the movie and the relationship much further than the dialogue would indicate as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both give incredibly dramatic performances. Mara is the more subdued and subtle of the two as her character Therese is being swept up in this romance she doesn’t quite understand and, without the life experience of Carol, doesn’t quite have as much to feel emotional about. It’s interesting that one of Rooney Mara’s most defining roles was as ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘ where she didn’t play the main character but she played the title character who was far more interesting. This time it’s the other way around as Mara plays the main character, but the more interesting “title” character goes to Blanchett.
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Carol is going through a rough divorce, has had past relationships and is trying to gain custody of her daughter which gives Cate Blanchett more material to work with. Both give incredibly strong performances and whether it’s a lingering moment of intimate contact, or a well timed pause there’s great nuance and detail to both performances and it’s a safe assumption that at least one will be receiving some Academy Award recognition early next year.

Though the rest of the supporting cast are mixed. We have a great child performance with the adorable twins Kk Heim & Sadie Heim both playing Carol’s daughter and Sarah Paulson is always a welcome presence but the male presences in the film feel rather one-note with Kyle Chandler hamming it up as Carol’s soon-to-be-ex-husband. It’s clear that his character is the way he is so it’s “okay” that Carol is essentially cheating on him but he doesn’t have much depth and Chandler over-acts the role. Jack Lacy has nothing to work with as Therese’s kinda-sorta-maybe boyfriend and the presence of Cory Michael Smith’s character feels out of place and feels contrived to kick-start the third act.
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Thankfully the production values on this relatively cheap film ($12M) are certainly strong from an impressively shot and orchestrated opening before flashing back to the true beginning of the story (in retrospect, the in medias res aspect feels very tacked on and unnecessary) and the costume design by Sandy Powell is as amazing as is to be expected from Powell (who previously worked on the live-action ‘Cinderella‘ movie this past year, also with Cate Blanchett). The three-time Academy Award winning costume designer (‘Shakespeare in Love‘, ‘The Aviator‘ & ‘The Young Victoria‘) does wonderful work bringing the 1950s to life in ‘Carol‘ with lavish outfits, vibrant colours and able to insinuate character growth and change based on clothing throughout the film in a way that feels effective as opposed to forced.

Make-up effects are strong, the cold romance of winter and Christmas in New York is tangible, the music is understated, the nudity is tasteful (not sure where else in this review that comment could go) and the fact that Carol is economically well off means we can be treated to some gorgeous locations and buildings throughout the film. It’s a gorgeous looking movie that FEELS romantic, especially with the December/January setting and the 16mm film used to give New York a timeless, grainy look.
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Carol‘ is a strange beast in that the central romance isn’t particularly believable or compelling due to the lack of instigating factors, but it’s hard to deny that the chemistry feels real between the brilliant Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett so that might have been entirely the point. It’s a movie more about impulse than romance even though it still feels emotionally effective. The two leads do a lot to carry the movie even though its runtime of 118 minutes seems rather excessive for what amounts to a lavishly crafted mood-piece but ‘Carol‘ is still a strong film that will undoubtedly do well with its target demographic and may even pick up multiple awards along the way.

I give ‘Carol‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 5th Dec 15