Directed by: Todd Haynes
Premise: Set in the 1950s, a young female photographer (Rooney Mara) begins a romance with an older woman (Cate Blanchette).
What Works: Carol is a love story and like any love story the success of the film hinges on the casting of its main characters and whether the actors have an engaging romantic chemistry. This film is led by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchette and they have that spark. Rooney Mara plays Therese, a young woman who has a sexual awakening when she meets Carol, an older woman played by Cate Blanchette. Each of these women has a distinct relationship with their sexual identity that is linked to their age. As the younger woman, Therese is just discovering who she is; her sexual identity is part of that but the story also incorporates her talents and ambitions. Therese finds herself at a crossroads, contemplating what to do with her life. By contrast, Carol has mostly figured out who she is and is in the middle of extricating herself from a heterosexual marriage in order to fulfill her vision. These two people find each other at the right time in each other’s lives and their relationship allows each woman to fulfill that missing part of themselves. One of the pitfalls of love stories about gay characters, and especially lesbians, is that the sexuality can become performative for the straight male audience. That’s one of the outstanding aspects of Carol. This movie does not exploit its characters or its subject. In fact, the story holds off on the physical intimacy until the right moment but when the time comes the filmmakers do not run away from carnality. As a lesbian drama, Carol is also notable in that it is not a victim narrative. The movie is just about two people finding each other and falling in love. There is a simplicity and an earnestness with which the filmmakers present this story that distinguishes the movie and Carol stands out in a cinematic marketplace that generally runs away from earnest displays to love and non-exploitative displays of sexuality. Carol takes place in the 1950s and so it is a period piece; the filmmakers capture the time period well with the sets and costumes and the film generally looks authentically of its time. Carol also features an impressive musical score by Carter Burwell. It’s a delicate but emotive soundtrack for this love affair.
What Doesn’t: The flaws of Carol come into relief by comparing this picture to Brokeback Mountain. Like Ang Lee’s 2005 film, Carol has a relatively simple plot in which two people enter into a homosexual relationship at a time when this was not socially acceptable. But unlike Brokeback Mountain, Carol lacks the complex tension between these gay characters and straight society. This is most clearly evidenced in the relationships between the women of Carol and their former male partners. Where the straight wives of Brokeback Mountain were nuanced characters who had complex relationships with their closeted gay husbands, the straight males of Carol are just homophobic doofuses and nothing more. In that respect, Carol is behind the times for the contemporary audience. In mainstream American society homosexuality is not the taboo that it was even a decade ago when Brokeback Mountain was released (and even in 2005 the cultural proscriptions against homosexuality were significantly worn down); if Carol is intended as a story of forbidden love it isn’t breaking any new ground nor does it shed much new light on love and romance, whether gay or straight. The courtship between Therese and Carol is sweet and their passion for each other is absorbing but there isn’t much to this movie that is surprising or especially enlightening.
Bottom Line: Today’s American cinema doesn’t have many passionate love stories and Carol is a very good example of what’s missing. As a gay drama it isn’t especially revelatory but as a romance it succeeds in putting the audience in the midst of the excitement and heartbreak of new love.
Episode: #578 (January 17, 2016)