NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: The seduction and hypnosis of a Todd Haynes film is hard to deny. His attention to detail in such films like “Far from Heaven” and “I’m Not There” are simply superb, and one cannot overlook the vision he engulfs upon as he directs each one of them. In his newest venture, “Carol,” which is based on the book “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, the luxurious command in which he approaches the material is confident and pristinely evident once again. He pulls out some outstanding performances, especially from Cate Blanchett and Sarah Paulson, and crafts another multi-layered deconstruction on love during a time where it was simply one note to modern society. With all that said, there’s a barrier between the film’s central characters and its audience, resulting in a good, not great cinematic endeavor.
“Carol” tells the story of Therese (pronounced TER-REZ and played by Rooney Mara), a department store clerk who dreams of a better life outside the normalcy of work and her persistent beau Richard (played by Jake Lacy). Set in 1950s New York, she falls for an older, married woman names Carol (played by Blanchett), and the two embark on a journey of forbidden love.
“Carol” is as lusciously made as you come to expect from any Haynes film. Sexy, sultry, and vibrantly crafted, Haynes pours his heart and soul into each frame he directs with generous and respectful admiration. He transports us to a time we can only see in our dreams, with stunning cloths of the 1950’s, thanks to outstanding Sandy Powell, and gorgeous set design, thanks to Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler.
The script by Phyllis Nagy, whose only credit is the TV Movie “Mrs. Harris,” which she also directed and was nominated for an Emmy, is profound in parts. It’s natural to go back to something like “Brokeback Mountain” for comparison, a story that succeeded so much on the subtle and quietly spoken thoughts of its characters. We see their love present in a secret kiss on the side of an apartment, or on a quiet standing by a camp fire as Ennis goes to take care of the caddle for the night. These are factors that add to up a forbidden love.
In “Carol,” there’s a missing variable in Carol and Therese’s relationship. They meet, flirt awkwardly, and then suddenly are together in a strange circumstance. Now, one can argue that love knows no boundaries of time nor space. Perhaps you would be correct in that, but the main difference between Ennis and Jack versus Carol and Therese, is that the love in the former felt just as high-stakes at what they threatened to lose. Ennis loses his family, wanders the Earth essentially, still unsure of his own place, even without theoretically any more obstacles. Yet, Jack visits him upon the news of his impending divorce, and with still a real fear of exile and being true to himself, Ennis sends him away. Jack is heartbroken by this behavior, that translates well into one of the most iconic lines, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Carol feels like Ennis in this regard, destined to live alone despite embracing her own sensibilities and self. However , in Therese’s young, unconfident mind, she doesn’t equal or amount to the yin, of Carol’s yang. Her exploration comes off like curiosity rather than love. Perhaps that’s the intent, and if it is, then I applaud it, but when the film reaches its conclusion, nothing supports that claim. I find little reason to root for these two to be together. “Blue is the Warmest Color,” even with intense and ill-fitting explicit scenes, manages to show the passion between the two main characters. I think that’s the key word that’s missing from the film: passion.
With those hurdles, some of the performances surpass any and all expectations. With a stellar year in hand with James Vanderbilt’s “Truth” already loved by so many, Cate Blanchett delivers an even more breathtaking portrayal in Haynes’ film. Blanchett captures the lioness quality of Carol, steaming forward with blinders on as she finds herself entranced by Therese’s innocence. Her slow, sultry hand moving across her lover’s shoulder is a vibrant action that speaks impeccable volumes. I thought it was one of her best performances ever.
Rooney Mara’s sensitive yet disengaged nature from her surroundings is particularly moving as she walks through the film. Her quiet breakdowns are felt in the moment but have no lasting effect for the rest of the story. With such strong Supporting Actress buzz for the performance, I’m a little baffled by its unanimous love fest. Especially when standing next to the great Sarah Paulson, whose role and performance will hawk back to Patricia Clarkson in “Far from Heaven” but with such depth and assurance. Not exactly developed to its full potential, but as Abby, Carol’s best friend and former flame, Paulson engages it all with a vigorous and palpable energy. As Carol’s husband Harge, Kyle Chandler‘s desperation and urgency is lively and vivid, but with not enough substance and time to really make an impact.
“Carol” is fruitful in the cinematic capacity of its structure but it leaves some things to be desired. For a Haynes enthusiast, they’ll likely run the gauntlet on its construction and performances, eating every morsel of it up with a spoon. For others, the appreciation will surely be clear, but there may be some that are left out in the cold.
“Carol” opens in theaters on November 20 and is distributed by the Weinstein Company.