From contributing writer Stephanie Brandhuber
Todd Haynes’ stunning 1950s-set film Carol is already leading the pack for this year’s Bafta awards, having already secured nine nominations, including best film, best director, and best actress. While the film is strikingly beautiful in its craftsmanship and certainly in its acting, the overall effect of the film left me feeling surprisingly and disappointingly hollow. This tale of forbidden lesbian love just misses the mark on greatness as it languishes in the loneliness of its own aesthetic perfection and meticulous constructedness. Ultimately, it doesn’t allow or any connection with what’s happening on screen due to its cold and unapproachable self-awareness.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt”, Carol tells the story of the burgeoning love affair between Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a shop-girl in her 20s who has aspirations of being a photographer, and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an older woman stuck in an unfulfilled marriage and trying to secure a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Although they come from very different backgrounds, the two women cross paths one day shortly before Christmas while Carol is shopping for her daughter in the department store where Therese works. Their attraction is immediate and magnetic, and, when Carol “accidentally” leaves her gloves on the shop counter, fate gives Therese a chance and a reason to see Carol again in order to return her forgotten property to her.
What proceeds then is a slow-burning fuse of desire between the two women, their mutual attraction, although very apparent to us through Haynes’ slow and deliberate camera movements, not entirely coming to the fore as they navigate their feelings for one another in a time when such a relationship was not allowed to be acknowledged, let alone acted upon. The pacing is slow, but in this case completely appropriate as the film attempts to build tension as they dance around their desire for one another. A hand on a shoulder, a lingering look, a meaningful smile. These are the only ways in which they can satisfy their emotional pull towards each other, that is until they take an impromptu road trip together where their lust is finally consummated. Although this is the moment that they, and we as viewers, have been waiting for, their pent-up tension screaming to be unleashed, the resulting love scene is so tastefully and carefully crafted, and so polite in its realisation, that the eventual climax seems more like a polite handshake than an explosion of taboo desire.
This painstaking perfection is visible in every aspect of the film, including the acting, which gave us some of the most wonderful performances of this past year. Rooney Mara’s Therese is quiet and elfin-like, her slight rigidity as an actress being perfectly suited for this role as she appears timid and perplexed with the onslaught of new feelings and experiences that consume her after meeting Carol. As for Cate Blanchett, it is difficult to put into words just how beautiful she is, her alabaster skin and velvety red lips making her a perfect fit for Haynes’ highly stylised, fetishistic take on the 1950s. Blanchett dominates the film with the power of her very presence, and makes it impossible to look away from her when she’s on screen. She captures both the urgency and the control of her character’s taboo desires in a cool yet relatable fashion, and you can’t help but want her character’s happiness, the loneliness and falseness of the life she is pretending to have with her husband leaving us desperate to see her break free.
Cinematographer Ed Lachman deserves high praise for his beautiful and skilled work in Carol. The colours scintillate and pop with every frame, and the whole film gives off a very melancholy, Edward Hopper-esque feel. Perhaps this painting-like quality of the film is the reason why it ultimately failed to draw me completely into its cinematic world, the smoothness of its filmic texture making it impossible to get past the superficiality of its beauty. Carol is a very skilled exercise in style, but which sadly left me feeling cold and hollow. However much I wanted to feel completely connected to the amazing acting on screen and the emotional ride that was unwinding before my eyes, there remained between Carol and me a disconnect, its beauty just a bit too elusive and a bit too superficial for me to feel any kind of passion from it.(4 / 5)
(Photos copyright: Number 9 Films, Film4, Killer Films)