Movie Review: Carol (2015)

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On the surface, all of Todd Haynes filmography, including his latest film Carol, share all the same defining characteristics. His films—which include his suburban alienation study in Safe (1995), his gravitated portrayal of anguish in Mildred Pierce (2011), and his Douglas Sirk melodrama homage in Far From Heaven (2002)—are all stylish, delicate, and precise period pieces that utilize the past’s antiquated values as a dialogue with the present’s evolution. Haynes might very well be a master of historical fiction in aesthetic and tone, but through his use of profound character subtlety, recurring themes of societal repression, and a dedication to the emotional and philosophical power of being he transcends his chosen periods and has become a cinematic historian of sentiment. Carol strives, just like all of his films, to be something far more than just a closeted artifact of the past, and in doing so becomes something rather timeless as it reflects deeply on love hiding in plain sight, the natural attribute of human magnetism, and the process of discovering one’s true self. Haynes’ pristine period piece recreation in Carol actually feels like an unattainable dream; a masterfully elegant and intimate dance of desire that seems preserved within glass, only to be shattered once its barrier between then and now breaks. It’s a precious and artistic blend of emotional glances, translucent wanderings, and the inevitable shattering of beauty from societal expectations and close-minded mores that immerses you completely in its authentic display of human allure. Period pieces tend to get trapped in their adopted time period, which can diminish the intent for modern reflection or moral lesson. But Haynes’ impeccable filmmaking craft creates an understated precision within Carol that never allows its emotional core to become melodramatic, keeping this elusive, cold, and dreamy drama of passion attuned to our modern sensibilities even as it remains faithful to its chosen era.

Carol marks the first time that Haynes himself wasn’t behind the screenplay, and still Phyllis Nagy’s script fits like an immaculate puzzle piece in Haynes’ period piece repertoire. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt—originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan—Nagy has taken some liberties with the source material, changing around minor details, the occasional character, and some notable plot points. And yet, Nagy has artistically deepened the material by turning a sole perspective of desire into a mirrored reflection between two individual, yet similar souls. Set during the Eisenhower years of 1950s propriety, Carol laments gracefully, and almost disjointedly, on the battle between love and its force of will and the unmoving moral landscape that can prevent it. The story focuses on aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara); an intelligent alienated soul who is as timid and vulnerable as she is voracious and passionate. In a passing glance from opposite sides of a department store counter she becomes enamored with the mysterious entity that is Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring, angelic figure who carries herself with elegance and poise. Each of their lives are complicated beyond the disapproval of society around them—Carol is in the midst of a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and adores her child who anchors her to the past while Therese has the burden of not really knowing herself, balances multiple male suitors, and feels alien to her time and place (“flung from space” as Carol puts it). They both could just as well be flung from space, because Carol really is about two tragically linked lost souls whose fragile, tender, and discreet romance doesn’t fit within the unfortunate time period they occupy. Nagy’s script brilliantly recognizes this tragic circumstance without moral posturing, shallow platitudes, or burdened pathology, but instead focuses on the purity of character and the insight of its suggested themes.

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And suggestion, implication, and subtlety define every interaction found within Carol. A mixture of the time period’s judgement and a personal sense of class created a secretive language of furtive looks, implicit gestures, and gentle touches, all of which can be found in the beautifully restrained performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The metaphysical Blanchett—who has worked with Haynes before in the vignette Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007)—embodies the epitome of refined femininity in Carol, with her upper-class affectation coming to life through Sandy Powell’s wonderful costumes. She might be the more self-assured of the two in the forbidden romance, but underneath her confidence of experience lies a deep vulnerability and fateful hesitation. Rooney Mara’s Therese is equally layered, since the film focuses solely on her innocence transforming into hungry self-discovery. Mara’s interior performance of reservation finds poetry in the character’s complexities, which balances a paradox of timidity and eagerness. But what’s so refreshing about the character portraits of Carol is that they are fully realized human beings and not one-note archetypes; complex individuals with contradictory thoughts, flawed attributes, imperfect characteristics, and, above all, empathetic understandings. For instance, Kyle Chandler’s Harge could easily have been created into a villainous tyrant of intolerance, but instead he becomes a tragic figure that is an incarnation of circumstantial frustration, unrequited love, and societal conditioning. His inability to let Carol go speaks volumes about the human condition, and absolutely nothing about perceived bigotry—an aspect that gets overwhelmingly lectured in more and more obtuse ways. But it’s that keen sense of transformative art that has always benefited Haynes’ films, because his unmatched sense of warmth as a filmmaker generates humanized storytelling with effective and emotional control.

It’s interesting that Haynes has brought such a distinct warmth to the chilly prose of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, but it’s that melding of creative tensions, differing style, and equally beautiful insight that has created such a beautiful tribute to the everlasting power of attraction in Carol. Haynes obsession with heightened, extremely lush cinema styles can mostly be attributed to his direct influence from Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, which include the classics Written on the Wind (1956), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Magnificent Obsession (1954). His scholarly focus on Sirk’s humanist and sentimental attributes as well as the concept of female suffering has guided most of his work, whether it’s been his shorts Dottie Gets Spanked (1993) and Superstar (1988) or even his full length features, most notably his other 1950s relationship repression story in Far From Heaven (2002). Carol could be seen as a complimentary addition to Far From Heaven—considering they both share a commendable understanding on the concept of human desire—but there’s something more abstract and modern to Carol’s presentation. Cinematographer and Haynes collaborationist Edward Lachman has given the film an evocative muted color scheme; a visual focus on greens, greys, and an avoidance of bright colors as to keep the film suspended in beguiling transcendence as it gracefully meanders between idyllic romance and anxiety driven psychological suspense. Scenes vibrate with a visual intensity and emotional clarity through Haynes and Lachman’s focus on the intricacies of the face, the subtle implications of the touches, and a slowly building erotic tension that culminates into a fierce embrace of two souls that never felt so deserved. Underneath, driving the film’s emotional currents, is Carter Burwell’s score that almost borders on Phillip Glass plagiarism, which is a minor quibble in an otherwise perfect demonstration of cinematic originality. Haynes has perfected his influences and delivered a film that visually, sonically, and verbally creates an understated portrait of human attraction, and it’s a wonderment to experience and be part of.

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Carol stands as a remarkable creation of authentic romance without debilitating self-reference or grandstanding dishonesty; two potential tone devices that could have very easily been adopted by an enthralling story of societal injustice. By avoiding getting caught up in the obvious intolerance of the conservative Eisenhower years and simply focusing on the naturalism of human attraction, Haynes has made something rather majestic in its story’s miniature simplicity. As a filmmaker Haynes wants to find the warmth, the understanding, and the sentiment in all of his subjects, which allows his film to achieve a transcendental beauty as it doesn’t plead for equality and instead simply shows it through interaction, understanding, and experience. Which is why Carol never feels as though it’s a moral lesson trapped in its designated period, because it refuses to compare and contrast the obvious dissimilarities between the past and the present and simply shows us how it’s supposed to be. There’s a stunning use of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin jazz standard “Easy Living” within Haynes’ film, where the lyrics point to a significant contemplation: “Living for you is easy living, it’s easy to live when you’re in love.” For Carol and Therese, living is certainly not easy, and for the rest of us the purity of the ideal of romance might not be as attainable as their passion. But it’s the aspiration for that ideal that drives us to dream that it’s possible that it can possibly be touched.

Grade: A

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