Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith
MPAA Rating: (for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 11/20/15 (limited); 12/25/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2015
At its heart, Carol is a story about substantial repression and subtle oppression. The repression is on the part of its two lead characters, who are at different stages of determining who they are and to what extent each can show her true self. The most obvious oppression is that they are forced to feel that they must obscure their natures to society at large, lest they become social pariahs. The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith) isn't particularly interested in the oppressive systems of society at large. It's far more personal in its view of the pressure on and the prejudices against these characters.
This is a film that understands that the accepted "norms" of society are merely extensions of individual beliefs. It's a rudimentary idea, of course, but it helps to make the story's conflicts less contrived than a far broader viewpoint might achieve. The two women here aren't fighting the System. They're struggling with and battling against specific people who have their own motives for applying pressure on these women. We can judge these people—all of them men, by the way—for what they do, but there's no denying that we can also understand and maybe even sympathize with the reasons for their actions.
That makes the side stories slightly more involving and challenging than the film's central one, which follows the two women on a road trip toward self-discovery and romance. There's more to that particular story than the general beats, though. The women's relationship is complicated by age and experience, wealth and class, and their individual reasons for being drawn toward this connection.
The two women are Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett). We first see them through the eyes of an outsider, who spots them sitting at a table in a hotel restaurant. When the young man notices and call out to Therese, she displays a moment of fear. The rest of the film plays out as a flashback leading up to that happened-upon encounter.
It is some year in the 1950s. Therese lives in a small New York City apartment and works at a department store where the holiday shopping season is in full force. Into the store walks Carol, who epitomizes an elegant, stately classiness that immediately draws Therese's attention. The store clerk helps the well-to-do woman select a Christmas gift for the woman's daughter—a toy train set that's the clerk's favorite item in the store.
Carol accidentally leaves behind her gloves, and Therese mails them to her. As a reward, Carol takes Therese out for lunch at a fancy restaurant and, later, invites her to her estate home in New Jersey.
The external forces working against the women are men who feel entitled to their affections. For Therese, it's Richard (Jake Lacy), who loves her and thinks that means she should drop everything, take a trip to Paris with him, and marry him. Another young man named Dannie (John Magaro) uses Therese's love of photography as a way to get her alone in his office at the newspaper where he works and to steal a kiss. Neither of these men can comprehend why an unattached woman like Therese would refuse his advances and the promise of devotion.
For Carol, it's her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). The two are in the process of getting a divorce after Harge learned of his wife's past romantic affair with her current best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). He is regularly trying to convince her to come back to him, usually while drunk, and especially wants her to spend the holiday with his family in Florida. When she refuses, he comes in the middle of the night while Therese is visiting, and seeing Carol with a new woman pushes him over the edge. He takes their daughter with him and tells Carol that he will be seeking full custody of their daughter.
These aren't evil men. They are just insecure, and Nagy and the actors' portrayal of them as such helps to keep the potential for melodrama at bay.
The road trip, which comes after Harge's actions, finds a more relaxed tone, as Therese and Carol travel across the country to escape their problems. Along the way, the two women's attraction for each other blossoms into more.
There's a genuine sense of freedom to the trek, and Nagy's screenplay doesn't simplify the relationship. There's the possibility of something less-than-pure to Carol's pursuit of Therese, either through the suggestion that she sees the younger woman as a replacement for her daughter or the more obvious prospect that she is using the naïve Therese's adoration as a way to reclaim the power that Harge has taken from her.
It's enough of a mystery that it keeps us grasping to understand these characters (That's a benefit). It also feels as if Nagy and director Todd Haynes, who—with the aid of his collaborators, particularly cinematographer Edward Lachman—creates a stunning recreation of the period that also feels dreamily ethereal, are playing it safe, lest we see either woman in too negative a light (That is not a benefit). Blanchett's performance does allow us to see Carol as a woman whose air of superiority keeps her emotionally aloof, and Mara is also quite good as a young woman whose innocent way of looking at the world seems destined to be shattered.
The world and other people, of course, have other plans for the two women, and the film's third-act developments directly address the personal sacrifices the characters must make in the face of people who do not understand them. Carol is a fine, elegant melodrama—nothing more and nothing less.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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