The Odyssey of Love
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Carol is beautiful. From its first frame to the last, Todd Haynes’s impeccably crafted cinematic feast is a work of refined beauty that emanates effortlessly from every edifice of the screen. Each touch is perfection, each shot evocative without drawing too much attention to itself, each line of dialogue is weighted without ever feeling as if it were trying too hard to be metaphoric. There’s a minimalist tendency to Carol and one that works remarkably well in adapting Patricia Highsmith’s acclaimed novel The Price of Salt. Minimalism in film is remarkably difficult to pull off, which is why in numerous films there is a tendency of the filmmaker(s) to ensure that their audience comprehends the narrative with moments that feel jarringly pummeling. There is none of that in Carol, with Haynes’s camera and Phyllis Nagy’s script displaying a plethora of faith in its audience and their collective intelligence. During filming, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara would often find lines that they felt were perhaps unnecessary and with of Haynes and Nagy altered them towards the edifice of silence and that creative teamwork works magnificently. There’s little boldness in the obnoxious sense, there’s none of the scandalous bodice-ripping a much lesser film would have jumped at, and there’s no reliance on gratuitous titillation. There’s something much sexier in Blanchett’s smoldering expressions as she glances towards the shier Mara behind the desk and the film understands that all the way to its final, gobsmacking shot. The sublime visuals never distract from that minimalism even as they fill the screen with a beautiful array of holiday magic, instead allowing for that tendency of quiet to shine through even more brightly.
The Price of Salt was first published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Highsmith having chosen to do so on account of the novel’s central same-sex relationship. That pseudonym was reflective of the orthodoxy of the times, an orthodoxy that was made prevalent via religious constrictions that viewed same-sex relationships under the guise of morality to conclude that they were immoral. That has changed significantly, but not significantly enough to where Carol feels as much of an indictment of the modern-day culture as the culture of the 1950s and not just in terms of LGBTQ rights. Women’s rights were negligible in the era (as any avid viewer of Mad Men can tell you) and as much as Carol is scrutinized for her homosexuality, she is equally scrutinized for being a female. Her independence gives her a streak of knowing sense of self and that is threatening to a patriarchal status quo that prizes stereotypical macho male domination above everything else. Carol’s childhood friend and former lover Abby notes as much when Carol’s estranged husband Harge shows up at her doorstep. Harge loves Carol, but he is also an embodiment of the men that symbolized the era and in many instances continue to do so. He views himself as the breadwinner, he views his career as the primary objective of his family’s life, and he views his position as being the head of the table and not one of equivalence with his wife. The script walks a thin line between making Harge detestable and sympathetic, but the end results are fantastic, especially when a tearful Carol turns towards her former husband and notes in sorrow: “We’re not terrible people, Harge.”
It’s the film’s ability to elicit sympathy for all of the players involved that is remarkable, an unfortunate reflection perhaps upon many narratives that fail to do so. Carol is boxed in by the times, punished repeatedly for having the audacity of forming a human romantic connection with another individual, arguably the baseline for the existence of humanity to begin with. She’s separated from her child with the indignity of an “immorality clause”, words that unfortunately still have more power today than they really ought to to begin with. She simply falls in love, not saying those three words to the person to whom she has meant it the most until the film’s final minutes (that moment melts you and if it doesn’t, you’re a cyborg). Therese is a young woman trying to find her way through the meandering labyrinths of youth, yearning for her hopeful future as a photographer. She does everything everyone expects of her, she simply says yes to everything, and the moment when she discovers that she doesn’t have to do is heartbreaking but empowering at the same time. The final choice she makes is earned because of that exact moment and it creates a powerful equivalency that did not exist before. Harge does endeavor himself to despicable acts with the immorality clause, but he is a man who fell in love with a woman who simply no longer loves him and never loved him in the way he loved her. It’s an unenviable position to be in and the same goes for Therese’s boyfriend Richard, another product of his time that elicits more sympathy than perhaps some of his actions would suggest. Abby is as boxed in as Carol and Therese, but freer and more confident. Her consistency in supporting Carol regardless of the circumstances is a greater display of strength of character than anyone else in the film.
There isn’t a complaint I can truly make about Carol that truly diminishes its standing as one of my favorite films of the year. Ed Lachman’s cinematography is truly astounding, sure to land him a nomination at the Academy Awards if there is any semblance of justice in all of these awards ceremonies. His work blends in perfectly with the prescient art direction and set design, crafting a film that looks like the most visually astounding holiday film in ages. Haynes’s camerawork can be praised till high end and he should be a shoo-in for a nomination as well, although his deserved win seems unlikely. The camera’s framing is never off-kilter, which is something I’ve rarely managed to say about any film, bringing out the best in Nagy’s script in just the right ways. Nagy’s script in turn is perfection, adapting a tricky novel where Carol was largely an ephemeral being, primarily seen through Therese’s eyes. Those characterizations are embodied in two of the best performances of the year. Rooney Mara is astounding as Therese, finding the emotional beats of her self-doubt and knowing lack of validation as if effortless. Mara’s embodiment of Therese’s scattered state of being only makes the moment when she realizes what she wants and grasps it all the more powerful. Cate Blanchett, an awards staple and rightfully so, gives the best performance of her career here and if there was any doubt at how thoroughly she becomes Carol, just watch the moment when she sits across from Therese and confesses that she does in fact love her. It’s palpable and I have yet to find a single expression that is so imbued with a turmoil of emotional depth that somehow conveys all of those emotions in absolute perfection. Carol is largely being referenced as “the lesbian romance” and I largely wish that it wasn’t. It’s a defining characteristic about the film in a sense but not the defining characteristic. Most importantly, Carol is just about two people who fall in love over a fateful glance in a toy shop and that simmering romance is magical.
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Produced by: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon
Screenplay by: Phyllis Nagy
Based on: The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Edited by: Affonso Gonçalves
Production Company(s): Number 9 Films, Film4 Productions, Killer Films
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Dates: November 20, 2015 (United States)
Image Courtesy: Collider, Fast Cocreate