Carol. A soft-spoken name, a name that is repeated throughout the film in hushed voices, as though it needs to be handled with care. An apt name for a movie set during Christmas, but one that also deals with a period of time – the 1950s – that left same-sex lovers with little to rejoice about.
The plot follows two women, Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett); after a chance meeting at the department store in Manhattan where Therese works as a clerk, they develop a growing attraction that comes with consequences, given both the attitudes of their time towards homosexual relationships and Carol’s pre-existing responsibilities as a wife and mother.
I had high expectations for this film given its stellar cast, and, regrettably, I was let down. The movie does much in the way of visually choreographing the connection between the two women, as well as charming the audience with their respective personas – Therese as the quirky, silent-but-serious doe-eyed ingénue, Carol as the red-lipped, worldly woman of mystery – but not much in satisfying the urge to witness a genuine attraction between the two. Perhaps this was intentional, as a counterpoint to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which is rife with the lustful hunger of two young people in love. After all, Carol hints more than once at the possibility that Carol’s fondness for Therese may be in part an extension of her maternal love for her daughter.
Regardless of the implications of this argument, the rest of the film is, aesthetically, extremely sophisticated. From the lamps in the New York Times office to the hats worn by Carol’s daughter Rindy (Sadie Heim), Carol is faithful to the 1950s backdrop it has chosen. Visually, too, the way it is filmed is thoughtful and precise: the framing of Carol’s figure as she stands in her lawyer’s office, against a backdrop of dark lighting and unforgiving straight lines, subtly echoes 1940s and 1950s-era films such as The Best Days of Our Lives and On the Waterfront. Even the opening shot, a long take following a man in a trench coat against the familiar city-life backdrop, is reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart-starring noir mysteries The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon.
However, as clichés go about the representation of men in films about Sapphic love, this movie does not go out of its way to dispel these tropes. From the hopeful boyfriend to the jealous husband to the cold-blooded spy, all of the most uncomfortable and antagonistic characters just so happen to carry a Y chromosome. The only sympathetic or redeeming qualities appear momentarily, in Carol’s lawyer and Therese’s male friend who, for the most part, take the time to try to understand the women beside them and support them in their endeavours.
it is a movie about choice. By choosing to love Therese, Carol discovers the complexities of her own identity, the beautiful juxtaposition of her youthful sensuality and her maternal instincts
Nevertheless, whether we can attribute the following to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy or to the original Patricia Highsmith novel (The Price of Salt, 1952) she adapted for the screen, this film earns its four stars because it succeeds in passing the Bechdel Test, which is more than can be said for most films released this year. Furthermore, it does what any good feminist film – or arguably, any well-written script – should do, which is develop its female characters in a way that is recognizable to the audience beyond the stereotypes that Hollywood so desperately clings to.
Therese is particularly familiar in her young confusion, manifested in moonlike eyes that seem perpetually startled and amazed, childlike. From her point of view, the movie is a coming-of-age story about bridging the gap over her indecisions and finally learning to say ‘yes’ to her desires – for Carol, for photography, and for independence.
For the titular character, on the other hand, it is a movie about choice. By choosing to love Therese, Carol discovers the complexities of her own identity, the beautiful juxtaposition of her youthful sensuality – perfectly rendered in Cate Blanchett’s smoky voice, catlike eyes and voluptuous curves – and her maternal instincts, both of which serve to attract Therese who, at the start of the film, is subconsciously searching for both a lover and a guide. As an audience we come to love Carol because she is so innately feminine, a trait that is made evident through her association with red throughout the film, in all shades from vermilion to burgundy to scarlet. She is essentially glamorous, an elegance that goes beyond her perfectly coifed hair, flawless manicure and fur coat, but instead stems from a mesmerising blend of vulnerability and strength.
If this were a checklist, this movie has ticked all the right boxes: well directed; beautifully shot; masterfully acted. I enjoyed it, but my main qualm remains a lack of chemistry between the actresses. I saw the romance, but I didn’t feel it. Don’t believe me? Go see for yourself.