This is my review of the movie Carol. My rating: 4 stars out of 5.
Genre: Drama, romance
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Written by: Patricia Highsmith with screenplay by Phyllis Nagy
Release Date: November 20, 2015
I saw the movie Carol for the first time last week at our local theater. This film is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the talented American novelist known for her crime noir short stories and psychological thrillers. Remember the wonderful movie The Talented Mr. Ripley starring Matt Damon? That movie originated as a story by Highsmith as well. Ms. Highsmith died in 1995, but I’m guessing that she would have been extremely pleased with this movie Carol’s adaptation of her novel.
The premise. The movie Carol is the story about a romance between two women in the early 1950s. One of the women, Carol, is a wealthy and married socialite living in the suburbs of New York. The other woman, Therese, is at least ten years’ Carol’s junior, and works as a counter girl in a department store, where the two women first meet. The movie Carol pulls back the curtain and allows us to observe these two vibrant women, to see how they share a love for each other despite their different backgrounds, each one’s personal turmoils, and the stifling social mores that forbid their lesbian relationship.
The actresses are so well cast. The character Carol is portrayed by Aussie-born actress Cate Blanchett, and her main counterpart, Therese, is played by the talented American actress Rooney Mara. Both actresses seem perfectly cast for their parts in the movie Carol. Blanchett seems so naturally to have that quality and aura of the stars from Hollywood’s golden era, like Grace Kelly, Jane Russell, Marlene Dietrich, and Lauren Bacall. There’s a grace, beauty, and confidence that Blanchett, through her character, exudes onscreen. And just as the viewer is mesmerized by the character Carol, so is Therese. Elegant and at ease wearing the fashionable and expensive styles of the early 50s, Blanchett fits her role as well as the luxurious stylish kid gloves fit her bejeweled hands. And yet, to credit Blanchett’s acting ability, there’s also a subtle but palpable fragility, uneasiness, and longing that Blanchett reveals in her character’s every look, movement and word.
Rooney Mara plays the lovely, smart, and wide-eyed innocent in this movie. There’s something pixyish about Mara, and her dark hair, big eyes and fine features remind me of the Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn. The French actress Audrey Tautou also comes to mind. Mara, through her character Therese, also exudes confidence, but it’s a different kind than Carol’s. Therese’s confidence comes, I think, partly from her naivety and partly from her socio-economic status in life—Therese doesn’t have much to lose by following her heart, and as Therese says herself, “I always say ‘yes’.” That willingness to say “yes” and to be open to new experiences in an era like the early 1950s is fascinating, not only to the viewer, but also to Carol. As Carol says of Therese more than once in the film, Therese seems to have been “flung out of space.”
The costumes, sets, and cinematography. I’m mentioning costumes, sets, and cinematography all under one heading because in the movie Carol they all intertwine to create an almost magical world for the viewer. I felt completely immersed in the look and feel of the times in which this movie was set. I was transfixed by the impeccably beautiful outfits worn by Carol, who is obviously wealthy enough to afford the latest fashions of the 1950s. I found this interesting recent article by Vanity Fair that mentions, for instance, the attention to details that went into dressing both Blanchette and Mara for their character roles. Great lengths were taken, from borrowing estate jewelry original to that era, to researching and tracking down undergarments that gave the right look to the figure and silhouette. All of that attention to detail shows in the movie Carol. I’ve always found fashion fascinating, from a creative, artistic and historical perspective; as I watched this movie, I was completely taken by the clothes and fashion accessories worn by both Carol and Therese that were not only representative of the styles of that time and place, but were also representative of the characters’ socio-economic status and their need to maintain a certain appearance and propriety.
And this is where the cinematography comes in—Carol’s luxurious fur coat and perfectly coifed hairstyles, her ever-so elegant dresses that she wears so gracefully, the hats, scarves, and jewelry…the person behind the camera subtly draws the viewer’s attention to these details. These delightful details still linger with me days after watching this film.
There are gorgeous and memorable shots each of Carol and Therese gazing through foggy or rain-drizzled car windows. Many of these images, whether of a face or of a city street, are stylized to the point of looking impressionistic and yes, other-worldly…”flung out of space”…
Therese’s photography. The attention to costume, setting, and cinematography seems even more suitable for the movie Carol, since its character Therese is a talented photographer. Just as the cinematographer of the movie itself often does, Therese focuses her camera lens on Carol. Perhaps it’s only because I enjoy photography, but it’s fun to watch Therese watching Carol and then taking candid photographs of her. The viewer sees Therese immersed in what she loves, photography, and in whom she loves, Carol. That intertwining of the passion for photography and Carol, like the intertwining in this movie of costume, set design, and cinematography, creates its own unique and magical world.
Not just a lesbian love story. Because the movie Carol is so good, I’m hoping that it does well at the box office. But I wonder if misguided expectations or preconceptions might disappoint or prevent potential viewers from even seeing this movie. This movie is rated “R” for nudity and sexual content, and yes, it’s about a romance between two women. In only one scene will you see breasts, some heavy kissing, and some intimate embraces, but anyone looking for lesbian porn should go elsewhere. On the other hand, I know there’s a vast audience out there who will be offended by even the idea of two women being romantically attracted to each other; someone entrenched in that camp is unlikely to go see Carol. Perhaps ironically, I thought that of all the scenes in this movie, the one sex scene that probably took this film from a PG 13 rating to an R rating, is one of the least interesting. What’s far more intriguing is the dance between Carol and Therese, with its various trips and falls, leading up to that consummating scene, and then the story of its aftermath. To me, it’s the romance between Carol and Therese (1) in the context of how it either helps or hinders each of them in their dichotomous personal lives and (2) in the context of a time and place when such a romance is so very taboo, that makes this story so fascinating.
Is Carol a bad person? After the final credits rolled for the movie Carol, I was walking out of the theater and happened to walk by a group of people in the lobby who were discussing the film we had just seen. That’s when I heard one young woman say, “Well, I’m not sure that Carol was actually a bad person, but I do think she had a lot of baggage.” Which meant that someone thought that Carol was “bad,” a concept that really struck me. I was surprised, because I had walked out of the theater thinking the opposite, that Carol was someone to be generally admired—she had the courage and spunk to follow her passions, and in a manner that I saw as generally deliberate, gracious, and graceful. But after overhearing that comment in the lobby, yes, I think it’s feasible to see Carol as “bad.” Carol is probably ten years older than Therese and Carol had been involved in prior lesbian relationships, while the much younger Therese is probably still a virgin. Carol has far greater financial and social means at her disposal than does the relatively poor Therese. Carol is the one who initiates the affair, and it’s the wide-eyed and more naïve Therese who follows. Sure, I can see how Carol could be considered “bad” by some—she’s the lecherous lesbian who leads the uninitiated Therese astray, or she’s the wealthy and spoiled socialite who uses the blue-collar Therese as her play thing. I personally don’t see Carol’s character from this perspective, especially when the movie is seen as a whole, from the very beginning to the very end. I suppose I end up trusting Carol and her intentions, but, maybe to the movie’s credit, other viewers don’t. That two viewers of the movie Carol can have such opposing opinions about its main character I think is a testament to the appeal of this movie and the complexity of its characters.
Conclusion. I’m giving the movie Carol 4 stars out of 5—it’s a darn good movie, but no, it’s not perfect. My only complaint, really, is that certain scenes could have been more tightly edited; in those certain scenes, the movie dragged some and became a bit self-conscious. Otherwise, the movie Carol is a cinematic delight. The costuming and scenes will allow the viewer to immerse herself in the place and times of the early 1950s, and the cinematography is spot on. I wouldn’t be surprised if the cinematographer Edward Lachman is awarded an Oscar for his work on this film. While I’m mentioning Oscars, I think there’s an excellent chance that Cate Blanchett or Rooney Mara could win an Oscar for either leading actress or supporting actress; both women are superb in their roles. The movie Carol has the foundation of a great story, and that story absolutely shines with superb acting, role casting, cinematography, and costume design–they all combine to portray a fascinating tale about two characters who must navigate around social taboos and through personal fears and responsibilities, while trying to find and contain their passions for one another.
My rating of the movie Carol: 4 stars out of 5.