The opening shot of Todd Haynes’ Carol is an extreme close-up of a metal gate of some sort. At first, you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking at. While your mind races through all of the options (chain-link fence?), the credits roll, and the film’s title card flashes in giant, translucent text meaning the word “Carol” appears like it’s actually placed behind the metal gate. Eventually, the camera pulls back to reveal we’ve been looking at the covering of an exhaust vent on a 1950s New York City street. Cinematographer Edward Lachman’s camera then beautifully walks us past the spectacularly dressed New Yorkers and straight into a department store’s Christmas toy display, cutting to close-ups of the painted-on faces of the plastic residents of a tiny town surrounded by a toy train set. They all appear to be happy little families, husband and wife, two kids.
If you already know that Carol is 2015’s big, forbidden lesbian love affair movie then this opening imagery speaks volumes. The title card’s placement behind practical metal bars implies a metaphorical prison, and the procession of regular people toward stores selling heteronormative toys sets a tone of repression. This will be a story of two women attempting to break out of their respective prisons, one of them a young shop girl (Therese, played by Rooney Mara) in that department store and the other a glamorous, older customer (Carol, played by Cate Blanchett) looking for a Christmas gift. Their affair, which will ultimately threaten Carol’s custody of her young daughter, will be gorgeous to behold, delighting as a pure sensory experience thanks to Lachman’s camera, Sandy Powell’s costumes and Judy Becker’s production design.
However, will it actually move you? Will you resist the urge to politicize it, elevating it in your mind simply because of its social relevance? Will its awards bonafides prove to be distracting and lead to you accusing the Academy, as the AV Club did, of something dangerously close to homophobia for snubbing Carol for a Best Picture nomination? Will you be able to let Carol succeed or fail simply on its own merits as a film and not as a political soccer ball?
The Historically Important Source Material
These are all loaded questions because Carol is a long-delayed adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s landmark work of LGBT fiction, 1952’s The Price of Salt. It came out at a time when many people didn’t even know the world “lesbian,” and its surprisingly optimistic ending made it the first work of its kind. Before Salt, stories of same-sex love affairs always had to end in tragedy, not necessarily because the author was making an implicit moral judgement but more that they were kowtowing to the genre conventions of pulp novels. Someone in the story would inevitably die, but Salt broke from the norm. That, sadly, still makes it somewhat of a cultural oddity since if you think back to all of the queer roles which have earned Oscar wins they’re almost always for characters who die in the end.
The Tortured Production History
Playwright Phyllis Nagy was first offered the chance to adapt Salt into a screenplay in 1996, a year after Highsmith passed away. Nagy had actually been friends with Highsmith, meeting her in the late 80s through their work at the New York Times. However, Nagy’s script sat in a drawer gathering dust for years as the film rights transitioned from one producer to the next, each struggling to convince Hollywood that there was money to be made with a mainstream lesbian movie.
They scored a coup in 2012 when Blanchett agreed to play Carol. Their first choice for the role of Therese turned them down, as Rooney Mara was already overworked and unsure that she’d be any good in the movie. Their second choice, Mia Wasikowska, walked away once their first director, Brooklyn‘s John Crowley, surprisingly quit. Blanchett remained committed, an added bonus when her former I’m Not There director Todd Haynes was offered the job.
Haynes, of course, is the perfect director for this material, as anyone who’s seen his 2002 film Far From Heaven could tell you. Carol, he told THR, appealed to him because he “thought it was a cute, unsentimental portrait of somebody like Therese falling in love with an older, mysterious, complicated woman.” He recruited Mara back to the project, and here we are with Carol, the end result of something Patricia Highsmith put into motion over 60 years ago.
The Actual Movie
The story behind this movie is one of historical significance and admirable perseverance, making it something which is easy to applaud and appreciate. However, is the actual film just as easy to admire?
The answer probably depends on your own personal preferences as a film fan because Carol is the kind of movie where a seemingly innocent touching of hands or brush against the shoulder will say far more than any line of dialogue. In fact, there are multiple moments where the actual dialogue is almost inaudible, such as one sequence in a car where Carol comments on the weather (e.g., “Looks like snow. That always reminds me of Christmas, don’t you think?”) while Therese stares longingly at Carol’s tantalizing mouth.
Therese talks to Carol late one night on the phone, warning, “There are questions that I want to ask you that you might not like,” and a desperate Carol pleads with her, “Please, ask me those questions.” However, those questions are never asked, and the mere hint of them will be the closest you’ll get to either character openly discussing their sexuality or the obvious attraction they have for one another.
That’s not really a failing of the movie. Obfuscation would have been the name of the game for these women in 1952. However, it does mean that the majority of Carol and Therese’s emotional connection will be unspoken, Blanchett flashing one mysterious look after another, Mara’s saucer-like eyes seemingly growing larger as Therese undergoes an intense sexual awakening. That’s where the film might lose you, though, because, as Nate Zoebl argued:
Carol feels like its entire world, painstakingly recreated, has been placed under glass for study. I was left wondering what exactly Therese saw in Carol and vice versa. Neither woman has a particularly strong personality, though that could be a side effect of having to live publicly as a different person. I couldn’t get into them as characters and so felt little interest in seeing them together, which made the constant circling and nervous indecision even more belabored
Blanchett and Mara’s dual master performances help cover over a lot of that, but I ultimately had the same issue Zoebl did. In fact, I was not so much taken with their love affair as I was intrigued by the way Therese, in hairstyle and dress, seems to heavily resemble Carol’s daughter, suggesting a much more complicated attraction on Carol’s end than the movie ever acknowledges. After all, once Carol learns her ex-husband (a fantastic Kyle Chandler) is suing for sole custody of their daughter her reaction is to go on a road trip with Therese, a young girl who looks a lot like her daughter.
Perhaps I went looking for that because I was searching for something more when in fact Carol merely demands that you examine facial expressions and decipher the difference between what these women literally say versus what they mean to say. As Blanchett told THR, “The challenge with Carol is that we’re viewing this same-sex relationship through the prism of a 2015 film. These are desperately isolated women, not simply because of their sexual orientation but because they’re female in the 1950s, when there wasn’t a freedom of emotional speech around this stuff that there is today.”
There are more recent pieces of queer cinema which more directly discuss the issues. For example, Julianne Moore and Ellen Page were just in Freeheld, based on the true story of a New Jersey police lieutenant who was diagnosed with terminal cancer but had to fight to secure pension benefits for herself and her domestic partner. However, that doesn’t mean Carol’s story is irrelevant to a modern audience, not when gay and lesbian parents are still fighting a justice system which does not treat them as equally as straight parents. It does mean, though, that Carol’s delicate dance of forbidden love is either too gorgeous for words or too understated for its own good. It has positively moved others (e.g., BBC film critic Mark Kermode adores it) whereas it left me a tad cold. As a sheer piece of cinema, I did at least appreciate the expert artistry on display, and there were times where I came close to connecting with Therese’s part of the story.
What about you?
THE CRITICAL CONSENSUS
94% – “Shaped by Todd Haynes’ deft direction and powered by a strong cast led by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Carol lives up to its groundbreaking source material.”
6 Nominations: Best Actress (Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Mara), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score
THE SECOND OPINION