The year 2015 has been mostly devoid of a genuine romance. There have been romantic comedies such as Trainwreck and whatever the heck you want to call Fifty Shades of Grey, but when it comes down to a film about two people falling in love we haven't had much to choose from. Enter director Todd Haynes' new film Carol based on the novel The Price of Salt by author Patricia Highsmith. Featuring two strong actress' in equally strong roles set amidst the strict hetero backdrop of the 1950's, Carol is not only an extraordinary tale of two lonely souls seeking companionship but also one of the best films of the year. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 58 min
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Loves: Cate Blanchett, that Carol and Therese's love isn't overly sexualized
Likes: Romance films that feel real, Rooney Mara, the 1950's era
Neutral: Having no redeeming male figures in the film
What modern lesbian love story is Carol's equal?: Check out the French film Blue is the Warmest Color (warning: features extremely explicit sex scenes).
It is Christmas 1952 in Manhattan, the mild mannered Therese Belviet (Rooney Mara) is tending the counter in the toy section of a large department store when she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) who is shopping for her little girl. Both women have an instant connection and after a friendly gesture on Therese' part the two form a friendship that slowly begins to blossom into something much more intimate. Standing in their way of true happiness is Carol's husband (Kyle Chandler) and an entire hetero-centric nation as both Therese and Carol attempt to etch out a little bit of happiness in the face of bigotry and adversity at every turn.
The mark of any good love story is whether or not you care if the two primary love interests are happy. That is harder to accomplish as it seems as it is difficult to not only write two characters who are selfish in all the right ways while remaining selfless at the same time, but is compounded by the arduous task of finding the right people for the parts. Acting only takes you so far and it eventually comes down to chemistry and whether or not you feel that these two people who say they are in love with one another is real. Not every film about love gets all these ingredients just right often leading to the viewer going along for the ride while feeling indifferent towards the inevitable outcome. Carol isn't one of those films, in fact it can be viewed as the blueprint for how every love story should be told on screen.
This has nothing to do with happy endings or tragic loses. While both of those can play a crucial role into whether or not the story being told works, it always comes down to the deceptively simple idea of one person loving another and vice versa and if we get invested in their lives. Director Todd Haynes has crafted a masterful film that explores the joy and excitement felt when falling in love while also showing that the road traveled can sometimes be uncompromising and downright hateful. More importantly than all of that though is that we should never be swayed by our own likes and dislikes, it should never come down to placing ourselves in that situation and it most certainly should never be about whether or not it is the story of a man and a woman, a man or a man or in the case of Carol, a woman and another woman.
You might think given the title that the film is mostly about Carol which would be a fair assessment and accurate in some ways. But it is neither Carol or Therese's individual story, it is their combined story and we see it from both points of view. We see Carol's troubled life at home and how she yearns to be free of her overbearing husband of whom she only tolerates so that she may retain parental rights towards their daughter. She is a strong and capable woman who is sure of who she is but we also get the feeling that she is being held back not only by her soon to be ex-husband but by society at large.
We also see the loneliness of Therese who despite having plenty of gentleman callers yearns to find someone she connects with. Her apartment is bare with only the photographs she takes filling the walls, which is in stark contrast to Carol's mansion. She lives her life on a whim bouncing from one person to the next never truly knowing what she wants. While she seems comfortable in her solitude one gets the sense that she is secretly hurting inside as she struggles to discover who she really is and what she really wants or needs. While Carol knows who she is and cannot act on it Therese is free to do as she wants but doesn't know what to do. When the two women meet it begins to fill a void that neither knew could be filled in such a way.
The way they meet isn't preordained nor does it ever feel forced, both women are looking for companionship when they first lay eyes upon one another and much like anyone who has ever felt that uncontrollable pull towards another they become infatuated almost immediately. Like one leading another in a dance, they allow themselves to move closer and closer together starting with subtle notions such as returning a lost pair of gloves or inviting the other for a Sunday outing. The longer they dance the more in unison their movements become and without either of them even realizing it until the moment it happens they are forever linked.
That is an important point to make because often times, especially in Hollywood films dealing with lesbian or gay relationships in general, one of the participants is almost always labeled as the instigator which has always felt like a screenwriter's way of explaining how one woman would ever consider being with another and is beyond insulting in this day and age. From the very outset we see that both women are mesmerized by one another in the same way anyone would when attracted to someone and that if anything they are both the instigator. Carol at one point tells Therese, "I took willingly what you were giving", and as if there were any doubt, we know that this isn't that type of story at all and that this isn't your usual Hollywood treatment of gays in cinema, this is a story about two people falling in love plain and simple.
It cannot be overstated just how integral the casting here is and not just pertaining to the two leads of whom we will get to in a moment. The supporting work in romance stories is always filled with a number of unsung heroes who are tasked with keeping the spotlight off themselves while maintaining a constant presence in the background. There are a number of great performances in the smaller roles such as Therese's enthusiastic boyfriend (Jake Lacy) who we emphasize with on certain levels but never quite buy as being completely authentic. The real standouts though are Sarah Paulson as Carol's longtime friend and Kyle Chandler as Carol's hopelessly obsessed husband. Both actors bring a lot of understated emotion to their roles and provide some great performances in a number of the films more intense moments.
As for our two leads, both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have never been as captivating as they are here together. Beyond the obvious chemistry between the two women there is never a moment you don't believe they are in love with one another. It may take them the course of the film to come out and say it but we know, much like them that they fall in love the instant they meet. That has nothing to do with the fantastic screenplay by (Phyllis Nagy) and more to do with each actress' ability to throw themselves into their roles so fearlessly and without abandon that it goes beyond just acting and reaches a point where it's difficult to discern when the acting starts and the real emotions begin which is the hallmark of any great performance.
You can't really say one actress deserves more praise than the other as both are given completely different parts to play and they play them flawlessly. Blanchett is a skilled veteran when it comes to playing roles layered with complexities like that of Carol but even she reaches some new dramatic heights here that come more from her subtle portrayal of a woman prisoner in her own home than in your face melodrama. Mara on the other hand has been challenged in many roles already such as her fascinating turn in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but this is probably some of the best work she has ever delivered. Once again it is the subtlety of her performance, the way she looks at Carol and reacts to her as opposed to how she sees everyone else around her that marks this as a triumph for the young actress.
Another area that adds immensely to the overall feel of the film is its setting and just how well it captures that elegance of the 1950's. From the costuming, the production design and down to the products sold in Therese's department store, Carol transports us to a time and place where a story of this type is more than just unconventional it is forbidden which adds a whole other layer to an already compelling romance. While some of the events that transpire over the course of the film might feel like a way to add problems for the sake of drama, the script and the actors help transcend any of those assumptions making said events feel more like a product of the time than someone trying to create conflict to illicit a specific reaction from the audience.
If Carol has any shortcomings it would have to be with the male characters. The ones we meet are fine but aside from one of Therese's friend (who himself comes off as self serving) all the men in the film are painted as the bad guy which is just kind of short sighted, even for that time. Carol's husband, Therese's boyfriend, the lawyers and another significant character we meet near the middle of the film all come across like they are evil incarnate, an obstacle that both women must overcome to be with one another. It would have been nice to have at least one male character who was labeled as something other than an ignorant tool. But then again who knows if there were any men during the 50's like that as it was an era run by men and held to their rules.
Films like Carol don't come along too often and are to be celebrated when they do. Masterful direction, fantastic source material translated into one of the year's best screenplays and featuring two of the best performances by either a man or woman, Carol is a triumph in nearly every regard. The only unfortunate aspect to the film is that is was never able to reach a wider audience as it was relegated to a limited release during its entire theatrical run. Hopefully with the awards season looming (of which Carol has already had great success) the word will get out about this cinematic gem and more can experience the joy that is Carol.
There will be those who won't be able to look past the idea of a story featuring two women who fall in love and others who will either want it to be overly sexualized (mostly the hetero males out there), but those in the market for an authentic romantic story about two lonely individuals finding comfort and love in each others embrace will come away with one of the most compelling films released this year and one comprised of two amazing performances from two amazing actress'. See it if the opportunity presents itself, you will not be disappointed.