Film Review: ‘Carol’

CAROL Cannes Film Festival-3
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give brilliant performances in Todd Haynes' exquisitely drawn adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1950s lesbian love story.

With his groundbreaking examinations of queer identity and his fondness for the heyday of classic melodrama, Todd Haynes seemed almost too perfect a choice to film an adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” Patricia Highsmith’s ahead-of-its-time 1952 novel about two women who boldly defied the stifling social conformity of the era. Still, even high expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of “Carol,” an exquisitely drawn, deeply felt love story that teases out every shadow and nuance of its characters’ inner lives with supreme intelligence, breathtaking poise and filmmaking craft of the most sophisticated yet accessible order. An obvious companion piece to Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” and “Mildred Pierce,” and no less painstaking in its intricate re-creation of a mid-20th-century American milieu, the Weinstein Co. drama (set for a Dec. 18 release) should have little trouble translating critical plaudits, especially for Cate Blanchett’s incandescent lead performance, into significant year-end attention.

As a rare prestige picture centered around a homosexual relationship set during a much less tolerant era, “Carol” stands to generate perhaps an even warmer audience embrace than “Brokeback Mountain” did 10 years earlier, hopefully absent much of the snickering embarrassment that soured the otherwise widespread acclaim for Ang Lee’s classic. The obvious differences between the two films go beyond the mere fact that “Carol” centers around two women in an urbane ’50s New York setting; unlike “Brokeback,” Haynes’ film is not framed as tragedy. (To preserve the purity of the experience, read no further.) Remaining largely faithful to Highsmith’s ending, which thrilled and shocked readers at the time with its suggestion that forbidden desires need not be forever sublimated to the status quo, “Carol” ends on a triumphant note of emotional clarity that, for all its frozen-in-time period restraint, speaks stirringly and unmistakably to the present moment. It’s a thoroughly modern movie skillfully disguised, at least up to a point, as a Production Code-era artifact.

Deviating from the novel early on with a prologue set apparently long after the two central characters have become involved, Phyllis Nagy’s expertly condensed screenplay flashes back to a moment just before their fateful first meeting. A projection-booth glimpse of “Sunset Blvd.” and a proliferation of Santa hats set the scene as Christmas 1950. Quiet, mousy young Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) leads a drab, seemingly ordinary existence, holding down a temporary job in the doll section at a Manhattan department store. (As always, Haynes works wonders with dolls.) Into this world of soulless, manufactured luxury and overflowing display cases (realized to perfection by ace production designer Judy Becker) steps Carol Aird (Blanchett), an elegant socialite who’s looking for a Christmas gift to buy for her young daughter, Rindy (played by Sadie and Kennedy Heim).

The moment when Therese first sets eyes on this perfectly coiffed creature is a classic, unadorned love-at-first-sight moment, and after their brief transaction, Carol absent-mindedly leaves her gloves on the counter, giving Therese the excuse she needs to secure a second meeting. The almost subterranean delicacy of Haynes’ direction is on full display when the two women have lunch at a nearby restaurant, in a sequence where Blanchett’s soft, husky voice and Mara’s cool yet vulnerable one seem to faintly caress each other, their every anxious pause and upward/downward glance larded with unspoken desire. One of the film’s more remarkable achievements is that, despite their obvious differences in class and background, Therese and Carol seem to ease themselves (and the audience) so quickly and naturally into a bond that they have no interest in defining, or even really discussing — a choice that works not only for an era when their love dared not speak its name, but also for Haynes’ faith in the power of the medium to achieve an eloquence beyond words.

Shooting on Super 16 — and finding, as ever, a precise and idiosyncratic cinematic language that will best convey their story’s meaning — Haynes and his regular d.p., Ed Lachman, achieve a realist look and texture that’s worlds away from the lustrous sheen and pristine Technicolor surfaces of “Far From Heaven.” Absent any need for Sirkian quote marks, the less brightly stylized images in “Carol” more closely resemble those of “Mildred Pierce,” but the palette here seems even more deliberately muted — all dingy greens and nicotine browns, bathed in noirish shadows that seem to provide a cover under which the characters can at last reveal their true selves. Frequently filming his heroines through half-concealed doorways and rain-pelted windows, and employing medium and long shots as well as closeups, Haynes uses these obscuring, distancing visual devices with an unerring sense of thematic purpose, slowly pulling us into a veiled world where scandalous truths are hidden in plain sight, and only a privileged (or cursed) few can see them clearly.

Those individuals, pointedly, include almost none of the men in “Carol” — not Richard (Jake Lacy), the nice, clueless young suitor who expects the indifferent Therese to marry him, and certainly not Carol’s soon-to-be-ex husband, Harge (a terrific Kyle Chandler), who’s desperately trying to salvage their marriage even though he knows all too well the nature of his wife’s desires. While Harge urges her to join him and Rindy at his parents’ home for the holidays — not the last time he will exploit his daughter for the purposes of emotional blackmail — Carol opts to spend Christmas with Therese instead and proposes a road trip. During this blissful getaway, marked by shared hotel suites and hours behind the wheel, the two women will at once cement their bond — in a scene of frank, unabashed eroticism and tenderness that shatters the movie’s patina of restraint — and then see it cruelly torn away from them.

While “The Price of Salt” isn’t a work of crime fiction (the presence of a gun in Carol’s suitcase notwithstanding), its final stretch is as replete with undercurrents of suspense and violence as any of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, and Nagy’s adaptation allows the machinations to play out to ever more absorbing effect. Elsewhere, the scribe makes smart adjustments to the text, such as having Therese aspire to a career in photography (rather than set design), her black-and-white practice shots of Carol adding yet another pointed visual layer to Haynes’ aesthetic of desire. Notably streamlined here is the role of Carol’s best friend and former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson, superb), whose delightfully bitchy confrontations with Therese in the novel have been largely omitted here; still, like every other element, Abby’s presence snaps into the larger construct with gemlike precision.

Mara is as no less mesmerizing here than she was in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (in which she played a woman far less reserved about her nontraditional sexual appetites), and she seems born to the role of someone who seems at once knowing and naive, guarded yet unafraid to pursue what she really wants in life. Some of the film’s most moving moments find Mara simply peering out at the great nocturnal expanse of Manhattan — nicely played by Cincinnati locations, and shot, at times, in an almost Wong Kar-wai-esque neon blur — while Carter Burwell’s haunting score, with its two-step progressions and occasional repetitions, seems an almost perfect distillation of her longing.

Yet “Carol” ultimately belongs to Blanchett, and rightly so. Not for nothing did the filmmakers opt to go with the other title under which “The Price of Salt” is sometimes published; whereas the novel was told from Therese’s point of view, the film offers a more balanced dual perspective, allowing us an unfiltered and hugely sympathetic glimpse into Carol’s world of smothering decorum and forced family cheer. As searing as Blanchett was in her Oscar-winning turn in “Blue Jasmine,” she arguably achieves something even deeper here by acting in a much quieter, more underplayed register. Looking a vision in Sandy Powell’s costumes (the color red is wielded with particular expertise), Blanchett fully inhabits the role of a woman who turns out to be much tougher and wiser than those luxurious outer garments would suggest. As a study in the way beautiful surfaces can simultaneously conceal and expose deeper meanings, the actress’s performance represents an all-too-fitting centerpiece for this magnificently realized movie.

Film Review: 'Carol'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2015. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

(U.K.) A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.) release of a Film4 presentation, in association with Studiocanal, Hanway Films, Goldcrest, Dirty Films, InFilm, of a Karlsen/Woolley/Number 9 Flms/Killer Films production, in association with Larkhark Films Limited. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, Dorothy Berwin, Thorsten Schumacher, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Danny Perkins, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, Robert Jolliffe. Co-producer, Gwen Bialic.

Crew

Directed by Todd Haynes. Screenplay, Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. Camera (color, Super 16), Ed Lachman; editor, Affonso Goncalves; music, Carter Burwell; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Judy Becker; art director, Jesse Rosenthal; set decorator, Heather Loeffler; costume designer, Sandy Powell; sound, Geoff Maxwell; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; special effects coordinator, Kenneth Coulman Jr.; visual effects producer, Chris Haney; visual effects, Goldcrest, the Mill; assistant director, Jesse Nye; casting, Laura Rosenthal.

With

Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Kyle Chandler.

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  1. abeatlesfan says:

    I enjoyed the movie and ordered the book. I thought the acting was suburb and I felt their angst and passon. It was not really a passionate time in life but they achieved something great-they let love win. I enjoyed that.

  2. Wite Krie says:

    the best review sofar , thanks!

  3. TheCookie says:

    Patricia Highsmith’s only good story was The Talented Mr Ripley and even that was not as enjoyable as the movie version.

  4. Mitchell in Oakland says:

    Given that this is supposedly a meticulous period piece, there are some serious flaws in the historical detail — not trivial stuff, either.

    Interstate highways? Stereo (on 78 rpm records)? “Don’t Walk” signals at New York intersections? In 1953? Gimme a break!

    (For that matter, recognizing details in the setting that obviously weren’t New York, I hastened to research where the film was shot the moment I got home to my computer: to my fascination, it turns out to have been Cincinnati.)

    Then, too, the plot develops with all deliberate speed over two hours, but moves in a confused rush to its ostensible resolution in the last ten minutes. Hard to tell what’s going on at that “flashforwarded” meeting, even on its repeat performance — and everything afterward is a muddle.

    Despite all the artistry and insight of this film, its abrupt end left me scratching my head.

    This movie’s heart is in the right place, but given the lingering distractions brought on by such sloppy storytelling, this is not “Best Picture” material.

  5. Patricia O'Brien says:

    seen the movie, will see it again. can’t get enough of snippets reading on it. fab direction 2 beautiful stars great screenplay female crew? fabulous thank you all. more of Carol 2 ??

  6. Debra Crosby says:

    Just saw this and while the performances were good, the characters were so lightly drawn (and boring) that I really didn’t care about either of them. We couldn’t know them well enough to root for them or dislike them. The most interesting character to me was Carol’s distraught husband! It was a snooze fest, in my opinion. Dull, slow moving.

  7. Linda says:

    Carol’s actions personified selfishness. This movie isn’t about two woman, she could have had the same incounter with a man with the same outcome.it’s about commitment. Carol left her daughter with the same people who she couldn’t stand for her own desires. To much of this is going on in our world today…. creating broken children.

    • Alley Cat says:

      I can see why black people are mad about the Oscars. Care Blanchett twiddles her thumb on screen and gets an Oscar nomination. This was just awful, boring & awful. The actors were either cardboard or overly emoting. The dialogue was laughable, the story was nonsensical, and there was not a single character to root for. I understand gays are hungry for more depictions of themselves on screen, but come on. I’m not gay, but even I know it doesn’t make sense that Carol and her longtime friend – who probably knew they were lesbians since they could talk – only had a relationship 5 years earlier. They would have been diddling each other since they were ten. And this idiot’s way too long review was nauseatingly fawning. “Audiences will have a warmer feeling than they did for Brokeback Mountain”? Brokeback Mountain was one of the best films ever made. I cried for days… I won’t even remember this movie next week.

  8. Lakanal says:

    Haynes is certainly a fine stylist, but he draws a dreary performance from witty, exciting Kate Blanchett and gives her a stiff, frumpy look. She was much better in the Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel. Mara has more scope and gives a fine performance.

  9. unknownauthoranonymous@gmail.com says:

    can’t wait to see it; hopefuly it will play in newjersey. until then, i’llsee star wars.

    seems like they wanted each other,ever since carol walked into the store.

    they need to make a part 2 for next year some time.

    therese just stood there,watching carol leave the store;looked like she was drooling.:)

  10. Mousy? MOUSY?!?!?!?!?! Good lord, she looked like a French model circa 1952. Seriously, Rooney Mara’s beauty in this film defies words.

    Mousy. Good lord.

    Also, it was ’52. They kept making references to Ike just being elected.

    Mousy. If she’s mousy, then I’m a deformed opossum.

  11. Ellen says:

    Julienne: Lesbians as old news? Oh absolutely, there are so very many nuanced depictions of our lives. And Variety would it hurt to say a word about screenwriter Phyllis Nagy? I haven’t seen it but understand the work is masterful.

  12. Julienne says:

    Really? Lesbians. Old news

  13. Harry says:

    I`d watch this for Blanchett alone, Rooney Mara is incredibly overrated.She just got a very lucky break with GWTDT and has been stupidly over praised ever since.

  14. Iván el Terrible says:

    Typical Oscar bait movie. Critics will masturbate to it despite being an abomination, anyone can see that coming!

  15. biff says:

    i loveeee her red nail polish!!! That’s all i came here to say haha :) :D 💅💋‍

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