Carol (2015) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Phyllis Nagy (based on the book, "The Price of Salt", by Patricia Highsmith)
Review published December 26, 2015
Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, Velvet Goldmine) crafts this old-fashioned melodrama about a woman named Carol who is trapped in a joyless marriage with a man who is using their daughter as a pawn to keep her in it, threatening to expose her affairs with other women to make sure she will not have any visitation rights. It's a mostly faithful adaptation of the 1952 novel from Patricia Highsmith (originally published a pseudonym Claire Morgan), "The Price of Salt", which dealt with the subject of lesbianism in a manner different than most that broached the subject had done before, by asserting that women might have the possibility of happiness together.
Set just before Christmas in the early 1950s, Rooney Mara (Pan, Her) co-stars as Therese Belivet, a young and shy Manhattan shopgirl who ends up waiting on a sophisticated socialite named Carol Aird (Blanchett, Truth), who is looking for the right present to get for her young daughter, Lindy. Carol means to make a separation from her husband Harge (Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) and wants to make the present something special to ease the transition for the young girl, especially as her parents will likely be tied up in a battle for custody for the foreseeable future. Therese kindly helps her pick out the right gift to ship to her address, but in the exchange, Carol has left her gloves behind on the counter. Therese returns the gloves, Carol is grateful enough to take her new friend out to lunch, and the two begin to find themselves drawing closer to one another in a manner they haven't been able to with anyone else.
Carol is a beautifully crafted, finely textured period piece, evoking the look and feel of New York in the 1950s convincingly, making it a cold, rainy and somewhat unfeeling place, with characters looking out on gloomy skies through hazy windows, much different in contrast to the rose-colored one depicted in a similar shopgirl-who-finds-love film of 2015, Brooklyn. It's an appropriate use of the gray and brown environs of the city, as its an era that didn't warm up to those who wouldn't conform to societal standards. It's a subtle, observant work, relying on looks, glances, stares, touches, and lack thereof to speak volumes on what's going on, as the characters don't spell out everything they are feeling at any given time. Along those lines, the two lead performances should be heralded, given that they have to convey a world of complicated feelings at all times, but do so only in their expressions in a society that wouldn't allow for external expressions of these kinds.
Although Haynes' sympathies do lie with the women at the forefront, the films is also commendable for the portrayal of Carol's husband, Harge, whose life he so desperately is seeking to keep from unraveling. He has built a life for themselves that is coming unglued through no fault of his own, as Carol is not overly trying to harm him, but rather, accepting the fact on who she truly is. Harge, like so many people of that era, sees Carol acting upon her feelings as a choice, and something he can blackmail her with if necessary, in order to preserve the marriage. The film sees his position not as an evil antagonist, but as another tragic figure, trying to find love with a woman who cannot love him in return in all of the ways he desires.
Despite its finer qualities, Carol is a slow-moving, measured film, which some viewers will likely struggle through, especially given that Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris), a friend of Highsmith's, have decided to keep the drama from boiling over with intensity, though it's certainly a film with a cast that would be able to deliver big, Oscar-worthy moments of anguish and showy histrionics, if the filmmakers were so inclined. Even if the ability to stay reserved is commendable in this age of showy dramas, Carol does suffer from inertia during prolonged stretches, especially when it is obvious where it's all going, reserving most of its best and most interesting material for the final twenty minutes. It's also about finding love and feelings, and exploration, and yet, while I intellectually could understand the initial attraction between Therese and Carol, I never found it emotionally stirring, and, sometimes, particularly interesting. I remain aloof, perhaps because not enough time has passed for depth to enter into their budding relationship, and found more of interest in their individual feelings on who they are inside than I ever am about the possibility of these characters actually being together.
As an interesting look into the stifling nature of a repressed woman who is forced to keep up appearances in a society that shuns who she is, Carol delivers some interesting food for thought on where we, as a society have been, and how much further we have to go so that people can live in a world where such life choices about whom they're allowed to love and why is no one else's business. It's a simple story about a complicated world, where feelings are forced down into near non-expression, in an environment of suspicion and non-acceptance that results in potential unhappiness by all involved.
©2015 Vince Leo