1950s New York, and shop assistant Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is beguiled by the sultry charms of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an affluent married woman. Carol is herself is going through a divorce with her possessive husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) with their daughter Rindy (played by twins KK and Sadie Heim) being the chief stakes. The story follows the unfolding affair between Sapphic newcomer Therese and experienced old hand Carol, who is guiding her along this path of self-discovery.
Carol is based on the Patricia Highsmith book The High Price of Salt (later sometimes published as Carol) and is notorious for breaking the gay literary convention of knocking off one of the lovers at the close as some sort of moral reprimand. Because it is under no compunction to hurtle towards a tragic finale, the film abandons any sense of salaciousness in its content and is more about the logistics of carrying out a lesbian seduction and affair in a prevalently homophobic era. It’s liberating in many ways to see a lesbian film not courting some air of scandal or controversy.
A couple of the supporting players got a great deal of complexity into their short screen time too
It has been said that a good film is one that does not make you aware of its construction. Good editing immerses you and does not draw attention to itself. Good direction emotes the audience and does not make them sit up and think ‘blimey, that was a good shot!’. At the time, I was well buried in the film but on reflection, it was one of the most splendidly shot films I have watched this year. It wasn’t showy or exhibiting a complicated sophistication like, say, Wes Anderson. Rather, Todd Haynes opted for subtle moody lighting and casually playful shots. Thinking back I can recall a lot more nifty uses of vantages through doorways and the dimensions of the locales than I picked up on at the time.
On the performance front, there’s a well-deserved clamour surrounding Cate Blanchett. These days it is only worth noting if she puts in a rum performance, and I can’t see that happening any time soon. I am happy to say Rooney Mara has more than done her penance for Pan in this outing. I actually think a couple of the supporting players got a great deal of complexity into their short screen time too. Kyle Chandler as Harge could have gone for a straight monster but honestly felt he brought a conflict to the part rather than just being some kind of patriarchal bully (not to say he is a exactly a good man though…). Similarly Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol’s friend and former lover, conveys a lot more than emotional crutch her role could easily be relegated too.
I am not sure the film earns the garlands it is being awarded
There’s a lot to praise but I’m going to sound somewhat contrarian given the universal praise that Carol has garnered: I am not sure the film earns the garlands it is being awarded. It is not a bad film but crucially for a film about a lesbian romance, there was something a tad sterile about the protagonist’s chemistry for a lot of the film. When we finally reach the sex, there’s a suitable build and crescendo of energy but prior to and for a while after that, the attraction seems to just trundle along. Perhaps the run time is stretching things out a little too much but for whatever reason, the romance was the least interesting thing about the film.
I’d rather have had more about the bizarre and increasingly twisted relationship Carol has with Harge as they escalate their desperate and angry conduct relating to their daughter. Or the slightly pathetic confidante role that Abby has: is she a jilted lover who just can’t let go or is she sincerely now on solely platonic terms with Carol? Therese gets less focus on her downtime but that’s not to say it is less interesting. As the newcomer to a lesbian attraction, she’s entering a world of uncertainty but we are spared the stereotypical wrangling between self-denial and self-disgust as she internalises societies standards. Therese quickly registers the fact that she is attracted to Carol and is more interested in how to act upon or channel this than simply efface it.
For a gay romance, the central thread of the love story should have been stronger
The problem becomes that for the majority of the run time, the two leads are more interesting in isolation. I can laud its agenda, its refusal to put in an arbitrary confrontation scene between our leads and some bigoted hick, and the general disinterest the story has for the worn clichés of the gay morality tale – but I for a gay romance, the central thread of the love story should have been stronger. It has a central nugget swelling with lust and affection that just isn’t unpackaged for most of Carol.
I’m a sucker for a good love story (deep down) but without fielding one, Carol is more intensely brainy than emotional and is lacking for it. I can reel off wonderful points about the dynamics of social hierarchy between the pair, or Harge’s social obsession with projecting the happy family, or the legal battling as to Carol’s capacity as a mother. I can’t get too het up about whether Therese and Carol can make it work. Which is a pity.
Verdict: Carol is a good film with many virtues but with a lot of unrealised potential too.
Carol is on general release in the UK and USA.