Carols by candlelight? No, the festive season has well and truly passed. Carol. Captivating Carol. The film is a two hour character study. Cate Blanchett stars as the titular heroine in this perfectly poignant evocation of period.
Director Todd Haynes immerses us in the 1950s. In speech, class, character and setting, Carol is an outstanding distillation of a lost time. If Brooklyn failed to capture the essence of 1950s New York, Carol luxuriates in its setting, recreating the era in every last element of the set. Not since Mad Men have we seen such a self-conscious dedication to detail. The success is seen as Carol does not feel forced, but a natural, fully formed world from which the characters evolve.
The sets provide a carefully calibrated canvass for Blanchett and Rooney Mara (Therese) to shoot forth with the precision and deftness of touch that distinguish the film. Neither overshadows the other. They come together in a harmony so perfect, the audience is almost voyeuristic in its access to the thoughts and concerns writ large in every breath. Carol is a story of illicit lesbian love, flung far from the shrouding conventions of society. But Haynes’ film is something far classier than this simple attribution.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 source novel, ‘The Price of Salt’, Phyllis Nagy’s trim and elegant script allows time for these characters to spring forth from that simplest of source: love. Love is no stereotype of French vacations, country retreats and bourgeoisie etiquette. Love is elusive. It is in the stolen glances, the furtive movements, the silence. Rooney Mara and Blanchett embrace silence. Love can be inarticulate. But the pair provide a study of something more. Theirs is a communion of spirit that permeates through the limitations of the screen. Into the soul.
They become real. They exist. Complete with their own vulnerability and delicacy. From Carol’s first entrance into Therese’s life, there is an eddying chemistry between the pair. It pools within the constraints of society, before it can overflow in their escape from the city. Only once they are away from home can they truly find each other. Away from the stifling confines of the humdrum domestic inertia of unfulfilling relationships. For Therese, things are more simple. Richard (Jake Lacy) is a bumbling boyfriend in love, but unloved. For Carol, it is more complex.
Within Carol’s story, we are presented with an existential conflict between the mother and her sexuality. The two are irreconcilable in society. They coexist, but can never cohabit within a single individual identity. Suspicion of an affair, or even contact with a school girlfriend, leads to a messy divorce and court case with husband, Harge. Kyle Chandler plays Harge with the right pitch of ignorance and confusion that make him the film’s antihero. Chandler fills the role with a comic buffoonery that serves to enhance rather than undermine the tragedy of his character. He is a desperate figure, who cannot let Carol go. Though, in truth, she has long since departed.
In fact, she was never once his. Though a daughter is the fruit of their love, Carol’s is a quintessential suburban suicide of a woman trapped. Blanchett’s character follows a stream of unsatisfied, housewifely blondes, from Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, to January Jones’ Betty. Only she is not merely trapped by situation, but sexuality. Though their love develops naturally, her first contact with Therese is that of the coquettish matriarch. Her conscious conviction to follow her passion is originally fuelled by the banality of her own existence. Love is a way out. A sortie for companionship, to which Therese is an intrigued, if unknowing accessory.
Carol’s action is the final throe of a lost and lonely lady, wedded not only to a husband, but an all-encompassing societal stereotype of the woman she should be. The stunning fur coat, subtly carved hairstyle and boutique bangles are the coat of arms through which she embraces her conformity. But it rubs with a constant friction. The sparks of which are seen knocking her drunk husband to the floor outside of their house, straining against the in-laws at an awkward lunch and her general state of demure apathy that offsets any real experience. Blanchett’s brow utters the unspeakable truth that nothing matters to Carol.
Rooney Mara’s incandescent character is the match that strikes Carol into action. Her whole being transforms with a purpose found. Perhaps this sounds a somewhat conceited entry point into love, but the pair come from divergent backgrounds. Therese is the novice, an explorer into a world unknown. Carol is both the temptress, leading her into what remains a taboo, and the beleaguered elder. But if Carol seems a conscious corruptor, she certainly is not. Her vulnerability comes across in answer to her friend and former lover’s question “Tell me you know what you are doing…” to which she makes the firm, confident reply “I never did.”
The truth is that no one ever knows where love goes. But love is the road down which Carol travels. And it is one we are all the wiser to take along with these two enchanting characters.
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