**** out of ****
for a scene of strong sexuality/nudity, and brief language
Released: November 20, 2015 limited; expands January 2016
Runtime: 118 minutes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy
Carol is ranked #5 on my Top Ten List for 2015
A person’s traction with Carol will likely go as far as one is willing to engage its premise, which is a star-crossed lesbian romance set in post-WWII America. Outside of one explicit encounter, it’s a rather chaste affair marked by touches, glances, and anxious uncertainty. But regardless of how somebody feels about what the film has to say, how it says it – from lush craft to intelligent, sensitive storytelling – distinguishes Carol as one of the year’s best films.
Putting the art in arthouse, Carol is an elegant, sophisticated work both on the surface and deep beneath it, as it penetrates the suppressed, existential underlay of a polished 1950s veneer. Director Todd Haynes collaborates with stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to constrain emotions in a way that heightens them, imbuing an environment tailored to immaculate perfection – Mad Men’s meticulous Matthew Weiner would be jealous – with waves of tension, elation, grief, and melancholy (a soundtrack of the era’s more elegiac songs sure helps).
Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” (which was published at the time of its setting, making it a contemporary – and controversial – book when it hit shelves), Carol is, for modern audiences, sort of a Brokeback Mountain with women. Ten years after that Oscar-winner’s release, Carol isn’t quite the taboo-tester that Ang Lee’s film was, and even finds itself in a very accepting cultural milieu. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy use that progressive atmosphere to the film’s advantage, allowing Carol to be (for the most part) driven by psyche and subtext rather than familiar PC talking points.
This isn’t a film that seeks to educate or convert, but simply understand. And for any story about the depths of the human condition that’s truthfully told, that’s an elusive prospect. Haynes (a homosexual himself) has the acumen to allow that tension to remain, letting clarity or mystery to simply exist as they are, and not idealistically reconciling matters according to people’s (or his own) agendas and sympathies.
Like Brokeback, the lovers of Carol must navigate a more conservative time, and they must do so as one is already married (Blanchett, the title character) and another is conflicted (Mara, the younger ingénue Therese) about the marriage path she’s on. Responding to an intuitive connection struck at a department store, Carol and Therese delicately forge a friendship that is instantly charged with unacknowledged attraction. Pursuing each other at first within accepted societal norms (as well as within their own awkward uncertainty – Therese’s especially), the two eventually become consumed for the other.
That passion, of course, comes with consequences. It turns a messy divorce into an ugly one for Carol, as her husband can no longer deny the suspicions he’s harbored. For Therese, she’s not self-possessed about her sexuality like Carol is, and is even intimidated by it, so she sends confusing signals (born of her own confusion) to two different men who desire her affections. Haynes never lets the film explode into easy melodrama, and even masterfully employs restraint to stoke the volatile, escalating undercurrent.
Blanchett – known for volatile portrayals herself – is controlled here, but never cold. In a career that has often (and powerfully) resorted to erratic instability (capped by her Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Blue Jasmine), Blanchett achieves the same levels of fierce intensity through the exact opposite instincts, techniques, and manifestations. Mara matches Blanchett but with a more fragile essence, charting a path of self-discovery that’s as painful as it is illuminating.
One of Brokeback’s most honest, compassionate postures was how it was as sympathetic to the betrayed wife as it was to the tortured gay husband. While Carol’s spouse Harge is an angry, unforgiving aggressor by contrast, Kyle Chandler (TV’s Friday Night Lights) layers him with more fear and confusion than hatred, as Haynes allows Chandler to portray Harge with dimension and nuance. Jake Lacy (TV’s The Office) isn’t constricted to some stock role of domineering patriarchy either. As Therese’s would-be fiancée Richard, Lacy walks a discomforting line of trying to assert his manly role while also wanting to empathize with the woman he loves. Sarah Paulson also does some of her finest career work as one of Carol’s former lovers who’s now a supportive, quietly strong friend.
If Haynes has had any detractors over his career, they’ve felt his painstaking attention to detail has resulted in aloof, emotionally distant (even sterile) artifice, beautiful though it may be. And while Carol fits that mold, it’s also Haynes’ most potent expression of it (with its only cliché being a tired photography motif). Along with a sumptuous period aesthetic in its sets and costumes, Ed Lachman’s cinematography captures some of the most striking, stylishly composed frames you’ll see in a motion picture (reminiscent of painter Edward Hopper), ones that aren’t merely stunning to look at but operate, at times, as metaphors for a character’s given psychological state and conflict. And shot on 16mm, the grain texture enhances the nostalgic palette. It’s a visual masterwork.
Regardless of where you stand on the evolving spectrum of sexual identity – which seems to only get more complicated, and quickly, as time goes on – one thing that most people of diverging opinions can agree on is that repression is never the key. That psychological health must begin with honesty. So even if you disagree with Carol’s worldview, its message – that living a lie can only destroy – is a universal truth.