Monday, December 28, 2015

Movie Review: "Carol" (2015)

© The Weinstein Company

When I was a freshman in college, my second semester, there was a 300-level Gay and Lesbian Literature class that I was determined to take, despite being a freshman and not eligible or "smart enough" or some-such nonsense. I walked into the professor's office and quite literally begged him to let me take it. I find the material fascinating, particularly early-mid 20th century, I wasn't about to let arbitrary grade-level rules keep me from. Probably just to get me to leave him alone, signed off. It was during this class that we read The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, and I fell in love (with this, among other books like Rubyfruit Jungle and The Well of Loneliness).

It was rare to read anything on the subject that didn't end in tragedy, and this story was full of relatable desire, tension, and human fascination. Even a bit of humor. When I heard the novel was being adapted into a feature film for the first time—with the title now changed to Carol (a choice that frankly confounds me)—I could only have been more eager for its release once I heard who'd be starring in it. Needless to say, my expectations were astronomical when two of my favorites were announced.

The story, in both book and film, is as follows. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young, aspiring photographer, growing evermore apathetic working in the toy department of a large department store in Manhattan. Days before Christmas, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) walks up to Therese's counter, in search of a gift for her daughter. Therese is immediately taken with Carol, so sophisticated and confidant, she doesn't hesitate to call her when she discovers her gloves left at the store. Unknown to Therese, Carol is going through a difficult divorce, her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) suspicious of "immoral behavior" related to Carol's possible attraction to women. Ignoring the risks, Carol strikes up a friendship with Therese, who herself is struggling to determine what she wants in life, and whom she wants it with. As their friendship develops into a secret romance, Therese begins to discover her own strengths as Carol's weaknesses reveal themselves, threatening to destroy both of their lives.

The film might seem to be about Carol, but it's Therese whose perspective we embrace. Driven by her emotions, we share her naivete despite having a window into Carol's fair-weather and desperate life. To the audience, and to Therese, Carol is a mystery. Blanchett glides around embodying that mystery with minimal effort—this is not a complicated role for her to play, and as a result, it's a less impressive one. You would never doubt her ability to captivate a young woman like Therese, nor convey feigned indifference. Watching her as Carol was like watching a geisha entertain a client—every movement was measured and every smile was calculated. Therese's nervous tittering only highlights that, and reveals Therese's own insecurities.

This is the kind of character Rooney Mara has been running away from for years. Therese is a mousey, wide-eyed girl, whose worldly experience is limited at best. Mara plays the part with earnest gullibility, and it's an interesting dynamic to watch her fall for Blanchett's Carol—there is a fine line between wanting to be someone and wanting to be with someone. This is particularly true if you're just beginning to explore your sexuality, as Therese is. At the beginning, it feels like the former. Therese, dowdy in dress and pale lipped, stares at Carol, draped in fur and perfectly coiffed, with stunned admiration. The latter, naturally, comes later, but the shift happens slowly, perhaps not solidifying itself in Therese's mind until after the two become physical. But it does take awhile, considering Carol knows exactly what she's doing. It's here when the film begins to struggle.

Phyllis Nagy's script is very steady, almost too steady. It misses opportunities to insert compelling emotional revelations, and most of the melodrama or conflict feels rushed, an after-thought. Mara and Blanchett are so wonderful together, one would hope that might be enough to keep audiences glued to the screen, but it wasn't. Even for me, who adored the novel and found this to be a relatively solid adaptation, can't ignore that an accurate book-to-screen story does not a cinematic experience make. Character-driven though this film might be, it didn't push the material far enough, especially when it had such a visual medium at its disposal.

Carol's biggest crime is that it's forgettable. Director Todd Haynes' vision might be too quiet or languid for most audiences to enjoy. The acting, the script, they're all so perfectly constructed that the film lacks any imperfect, memorable details to set it apart from anything else equally as well-executed. Every element was accounted for—hair, period clothing, set design, props—and yet all of it adds up to something less than impressionable. A lovely film, worth a viewing, but it falls short of what it could have been: a powerful exploration of budding lesbianism that doesn't, through its characters' actions, condemn it or them.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

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