DVD Review: Carol
Excellent character drama Todd Haynes’ CAROL showcases the supreme talents of leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as star-crossed lovers traversing a complex relationship in 50s New York City. Blanchett’s eponymous Carol is a society wife whose marriage is barely hanging together. Mara’s significantly younger Therese is drawn into Carol’s orbit serving as her department store sales assistant on a Christmas shopping trip. Therese begins the story in a half-hearted relationship with a young man who fails to raise a firm commitment from her and more importantly fails to understand her in the slightest. Therese’s youthful beauty and air of mild unease intrigue Carol and the older woman’s subsequent pursuit of intimacy is highly romantic whilst also carrying a slightly predatory undertone. Not that Carol means harm. Rather, being the older more experienced of the pair, she steers matters with a firm hand towards her personal ends. She is a woman whose own desires have been subsumed by a marriage and its ensuing sense of entrapment. She feels like she can see more in life for Therese, even if that ‘more’ is intrinsically linked to her own desire for relationship.
Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel THE PRICE OF SALT proves a smart psychological investigation within what would have been a scandalous series of events for the era and social context: a respectable marriage, with a child, broken up by a lesbian coupling in McCarthyist America! Phyllis Nagy’s dialogue has a measured feel, which Blanchett delivers with deliberate aplomb. This controlled verbal expression evinces Carol’s need to control her environment and present an unshakeable façade. When external forces periodically exert themselves past her ability to deflect Carol’s demeanour suffers greatly—as do the people who happen to be around her at the time. Sarah Paulson is a standout in support as Carol’s lifelong friend and erstwhile lover Abby. She gives a well nuanced performance of a character pitched to reveal Carol’s vulnerability; the steady calm helping to balance the latter’s volatility. Abby stands in as a possible future road marker for Therese just as Therese is seen and used by Carol as an alternative version of her younger self. Carol even states Therese brings to mind herself long before a life, which, in many ways, she regrets. As such Carol’s counsel to Therese regarding making life decisions based on an honest appraisal of self can be seen as a vicarious act. In this aspect CAROL shares some thematic similarities with Assayas’s CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA which explores the impact of aging on perception of self-identity through a series of character ‘doublings’ and repetitions.
The recognisable cadence of Nagy’s dialogue patterns is matched by the movement of the camera and the distinctive timing of cutting between character points-of-view. Edward Lachman’s cinematography is striking throughout with great foreground-background contrasts, visual obfuscation—characters seen through fog/rain/reflection filled car windows, the backs of heads in frame with faces simultaneously visible via a mirror, speaking actors only partially in shot through a doorway etc.—and subtle use of shade. The connection between director and cinematographer is quite apparent making for a cohesive visual experience (Lachman has shot essentially all of Haynes’s work since 2002’s FAR FROM HEAVEN). The score by Coen regular Carter Burwell though sparse is occasionally quite forward. Music that makes itself felt and heightens tone without being directive. This is a fantastically made film whose formal elements command attention without pulling focus away from the narrative and characters. Even Haynes and Nagy’s reuse (pretty much intact) of the framing device from David Lean’s bar-defining 1945 tragi-romance BRIEF ENCOUNTER comes off smoothly. A lesser film would have suffered by comparison but CAROL creates an expanded dialogue with the themes of the earlier story from a ‘contemporary issues’ standpoint.
It is refreshing to have a story in which the constraining context—Carol’s married life—is painted as primarily a positive situation rather than a one to be escaped at all costs. Carol’s personal anchor point is her daughter Rindy. She is in danger of losing Rindy in a custody battle with husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) who isn’t dealing well with Carol’s rejection of him and the life they’ve built. He may well love her but sees her decisions, and hence her very identity, as illegitimate. The power of CAROL is in the protagonist’s struggle to be true to herself despite her materially comfortable situation (admittedly this is another rich, white story) and in the face of a society that can’t accept her identity. It is also refreshing to have a richly observed lead characters who are far from perfect. Carol is at turns selfish, petty, and irresponsible but she is also loving, passionate and driven by affection rather than malice. Therese possesses mettle when it counts but is a little too quick to cede responsibility to other parties if she can. She also isn’t the greatest communicator, a point which leads to otherwise avoidable conflict. In other words these characters are drawn as human people not thematic ideals and the film is so much better for it. If you have any bent for good drama you should most definitely watch CAROL (at least once but it’ll bear repeated viewings) and then track down a copy of BRIEF ENCOUNTER to follow it up.
Rating: M Sex scenes, offensive language & nudity.