Friday, December 18, 2015

Welcome back, romance: Thoughts on Carol


First, the obvious…at least to anyone who's seen The Social Network, Side Effects, Her, or anything in which Cate Blanchett has ever appeared: She and Rooney Mara are as brilliant as expected in Carol.

The two actresses are deserving of every accolade that's already been bestowed upon them and those that are yet to come. Blanchett is a near-lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and the gold for Best Supporting Actress is as good as Mara's, though she's technically a lead as the movie unfolds predominantly from her character's point of view. (Clearly we're meant to identify mostly with her throughout).

The real standout in Carol, though, is romance. Remember her? In a galaxy long ago and far away, before the age of swiping left/right and rampant NSA, she ruled the hearts of men and women. Romance makes a comeback in Carol, and it's a breathtaking one.

Fairly faithfully based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a love story set mostly in 1950s New York. That means it takes place in a time when you generally first laid eyes on a potential love match not via a phone app but from across a crowded room. Connecting meant closing the space between the two of you, both figuratively and literally. Given that Carol and Therese, the romantic heroines of the film, are both women living in a decade that wasn't particularly hospitable to LGBT, that space is just hurdle number one.

One of the most remarkable things about Carol is how it nails the dynamic of May-September romance without ever lapsing into cliche. Yes, Carol, who is fortyish and unhappily married with a young daughter, and Therese, a twentysomething-ish aspiring photographer paying the bills with a gig working behind the counter at a department store, assume familiar roles.

Sure, the early stages have a familiar ring -- the older and wiser one leads the way. But these aren't tired, predictable archetypes. Carol and Therese may not be peers, but they're equals in the romance. When the hunter gets captured by the game, the reverse happens, too. They're both the trophy and the victor, with so much to gain and to lose. That heightens the romantic stakes and thickens what there is of a plot.

But Carol is not about action. It's more of a character study. As the woman who gives the movie its title, Blanchett balances so many traits it's a wonder that she manages to maintain her poise and composure. She's brittle and haughty, yet fragile and insecure, chilly and remote but warm and tender. There are even hints of girlishness. Blanchett puts her sensuality on full display here (the love scene is as graphic as anything you'll find in a heterosexual romantic drama), and it's clear why Therese falls for her.

It's hard not to think of Katharine Hepburn while watching Blanchett in action. Carol is the kind of role Hepburn would have relished in the 1950s if directors had been making lesbian love stories back then. Director Todd Haynes has so painstakingly re-created the '50s that at times one almost forgets it's a period piece and not an actual film from 60 or so years ago.

Mara has the more difficult role because it's less physical and more internal. She spends a lot of the movie reacting and not appearing to react. So much of her character is revealed through loaded silences. Mara gives a rich, detailed performance that merges the uncertainty of youth with the weariness of being an old soul.

If the movie has one flaw, it's that it's less apparent what Carol sees in Therese other than her beauty. One might presume that part of it is despite her general ride-or-die reaction to Carol, Therese still presents a challenge. In one of the most telling moments in the entire film, Carol makes a throwaway comment about how she's always asking Therese what she's thinking. In that one scene (watch it above), she reveals so much about her character and why she's fallen for Therese.

Carol and Therese don't exist in a vacuum, though that likely still would have made for riveting viewing. While it revolves around the two main characters and their romance, the supporting players aren't merely window dressing.

Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, who play Carol's estranged husband and best friend, respectively, are best known from their TV roles, but both deserve to be more prominent presences in film. Paulson continues to astound with her versatility, and Friday Night Lights Emmy winner Chandler give brutish Harge Aird more layers than the screenplay does. Their characters' interactions with Carol as well as with each other in one tense scene offer hints to a juicy backstory that's probably worthy of a movie of its own.

That said, Carol doesn't really need a sequel or a prequel. It's perfect as is, at 118 minutes. By the time the credits roll, it's done what every great movie is supposed to do. It's left you wanting so much more.
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