Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett captivate in 50s drama “Carol”

Early in the Summer, I came across a movie that would sit atop my To Watch list for months to come until its release. My anticipation for Carol — propelled even further by its sweep of Golden Globe nominations last week — was through the roof — and for good reason. Who wouldn’t want to see a film directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), and starring Oscar winner — one of my personal favourites — Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominated actress Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)?

On paper, the film seemed like it could be one of — if not the — best of the year, and the reception it has received from critics spells nothing but good buzz for the film as it enters awards season, but when I first watched it, I didn’t see what it was that enamoured so many. I didn’t think it was bad, but I didn’t think it was worthy of the widespread, near unanimous critical acclaim either. Deciding to give it another try, I watched the film again and finally saw it.

Set in the conservative 50s, Carol, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, is about a department-store clerk named Therese Belivet (Mara) who falls for older Carol Aird (Blanchett), who is in the middle of her divorce and custody battle.

There’s something inherently majestic about Cate Blanchett that translates into her craft. Her very being is elegant and graceful, the outer  beauty of classic Hollywood. That, coupled with her clever and strategic choice of movie roles, makes it increasingly difficult to dislike the actress. That is magnified ten folds in Carol. The role seems to have been written specifically for Blanchett who entices the viewer with her every elegant movement and uttered word. She gives the character a sense fragility and resilience at the same time, making her a complexly inviting protagonist to watch. And that complexity is what makes this different from any other role the actress has taken on, save for, perhaps, her Oscar winning performance in Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine. Carol is graceful and taciturn, rebellious and boxed, scandalous and conservative, a mother and a lover, and passionate and reserved. It’s that very complexity that makes the character a very difficult one to play. And Blanchett arguably delivers a career-best with that respect, up there next to Blue Jasmine (although I’d personally still favour the latter over the former).

Much like Blue Jasmine and Thelma and Louise from 91, Carol boasts two strong female performances, and the second one comes via young Rooney Mara. She plays Therese Belivet, a store clerk searching for a more profound meaning to life and discovering herself in the process. Mara brings a sense of innocence to eagerness to Therese that elevates her performance to great heights. In her small quirks and mannerisms, there is a deep sense of curiosity and longing for a love long lost. It’s in the glances she sneaks, the way she reacts to Carol’s touch, and the unquenched thirst she has for that which she lacks, the nature of which she knows not.

The two are supported by Sarah Paulson (12 Years A Slave, American Horror Story) and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), who both pull their weight as best friend/former lover and desperate husband. They bring authenticity to their characters in a way that makes the viewer identify with them both, especially Chandler. In terms of acting, the one considerable miss was Jake Lacy‘s portrayal of Therese’s suitor Richard. The role is so ill-cast in that Lacy painfully pales in comparison to the heavyweights with which he shares his scenes, ones far more experienced and far better than he.

The relationship between Therese and Carol is the main event. Part of the reason I didn’t take to the film that much when I first watched it was because I has a certain expectation of what that relationship would look like. I’m not referring to the sexual aspect of it, of course, which is mostly absent from the film. I was led to believe that theirs would be an explicit exploration of passion and intimacy — but that was far from the case. The second viewing of the movie made me appreciate the subtlety with which the love story is woven; that the story is in their mannerisms and the naked innocence with which they regard one another, and not the sexual interactions.

That being said, the relationship is so intimate, the viewer is also blocked out. While falling for someone at first sight isn’t anything new, the relationship between the two women is heavily romanticised early on. As viewers, we miss out on the conversational element of their interactions. Their encounters are either too brief or are repeatedly muffled, which is a poor choice of direction from Haynes. We miss out on what it is about either woman the other likes, and that diminishes their chemistry.

That is largely due to the script. A major problem with the film is the shortness of the scenes. Most of them are cut off or are too brief to have much significance, and that detaches the viewer from the film because the scenes carry much more potential than was exhausted. Not having read the book, I cannot deem it a bad adaptation, but the shortness of the scenes and the exceedingly slow pace would convince me that there’s more to the story than what scribe Phyllis Nagy delivered.

As is expected of Haynes, who is notable for his period dramas, there is a lot of close attention to set and costume design. The film truly looks like it’s taking place in the 50s. From the hair and make-up to the mise-en-scène, the aesthetic aspect of the film is one to marvel on.

Shot in super 16mm, the grainy cinematography lends itself to the benefit of the film, creating atmospheric shots of effervescent beauty. The camera work is witty, relying mostly on close-ups for intimacy, perfect for the gazing scenes, for instance.

As the movie opens, the first thing the viewer is greeted with is the score by Carter Burwell, a beautiful blend of cello and piano that welcomes the viewer with nostalgic warmth, one that is perfect for the movie.

Carol is a beautifully-made film that boasts great performances from its leads. It truly feels like an old movie, and is aided by the perfect score and photography to help it reach the desired effect. While its script is a let-down, and the romance is at times too subtle, Carol is still worth a watch if you appreciate slow-paced romances.

Rating: 74/100

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