Courtesy: The Weinstein Company.
“Carol” is a film set in 1953 that should have been made in 1953, but could only be made now.
The film is based off of a popular lesbian romance novel, “The Price of Salt,” written by Patricia Highsmith 62 years ago. While that novel was looking toward the future of homosexuality as normal, this film looks back at that time with modern eyes, showing us the trail of blood and tears we unfortunately seem to forget led us to where we are today.
Just humor yourself and imagine if this film was released by a major studio in 1953. Conservatives frightened of anything red or rainbow-colored would have stormed the streets. Funny, huh? Now imagine if this film were released by a major studio today. Because it wasn’t. Most people haven’t even heard of “Carol.” It’s made a decent $18 million, but that’s nowhere near the attention it deserves. The closest this country is to homosexuality in commercial films is a half-hearted and artificial joke in “Frozen” about a gay shopkeeper.
American culture and the social sphere aside, “Carol” is a brilliant film. Directed by Todd Haynes, it stars Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, a cute and meek New York girl living by herself, but passively engaging in a relationship with Richard, a naive stereotype of dumb boys everywhere, who manages to keep the relationship dead in the water with talk of a trip to Europe we know will never happen. Cate Blanchett is Carol Aird, a sophisticated and desperately bored upper-middle-class housewife. They meet at the shop Therese works at — a simple meeting with the most nuanced touch of tension and intrigue. We know immediately that they’re perfect for each other.
There are only two differences between romantic comedy and romantic drama: where they begin and end the story, and the compatibility of the lead characters. Comedy begins with tragedy and ends with triumph, and the characters are complete opposites. Drama begins after the aforementioned triumph, and it all unravels, despite the characters being perfect for each other. Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story,” hinting that eventually all good things come to an end. Playing on and respecting these structural norms are where “Carol” shines.
The film pays more homages to a British film by David Lean more than anything else, and that film is “Brief Encounter,” which is one of the better love stories about a housewife ever made. It starts with its lead character in the background — we don’t know her yet. She is just a woman sitting with someone else. She is separated from the person, and through flashback, we find out the person was the love of her life, now lost forever. “Carol” starts and ends in the same way. (Spoiler:) The film does end happily, which is where it differentiates itself, giving its gay characters a chance to live as they are, rather than be punished by society like so many other films of its kind.
Todd Haynes’s and Ed Lachman’s (cinematographer) collaboration here is truly something to be admired. The film is as beautiful as the love Therese and Carol have for each other, and shimmers with clean, colorful and innocent throwbacks to the pre-Eisenhower era the film is set in. The film’s style is so unique and vibrant that to try and compare it to anything else would yield nothing interesting. To just see the beautiful images the film presents is a great experience in itself.
The camera placement and blocking of each scene is especially interesting as there are many moments in the story where objects in the foreground speak about the actors placed in the background. Window panes, columns and other objects separate the actors in the confines of the frame we are given, but not in actuality. This emphasizes the hidden tensions between people — the inhibitions of quiet lesbians against naive and often ignorant male characters.
Carol and Therese are stuck in their own respective worlds, and we see that expressed by the director when we see the actors shot from outside car windows — a barrier between them and the rest of the world. Corridors and door frames separate the actors from those that they desire. The story itself is about the repression and eventual release of desire. Carol and Therese become consumed by it, in ways I won’t spoil here. To watch the nuanced cries for help between these two strangers hidden under casual dialogue and flirtatious dancing of hands is to be trapped behind a one-way mirror, banging on it and yelling in some attempt to convince the characters of the beauty they can’t recognize in themselves. It’s wonderful.
This all being said, there are one or two problems. In the “big scene” with the two actresses, a cheesy line had me flung out of space. That’s what the line is, actually — “flung out of space.” But more importantly, all the men in this film are dumb, ignorant brutes. Maybe we all are — what do I know? But every man in this story is a one-note character with no depth, only interested in sex with one of the leading ladies. Maybe this was done intentionally to emphasize Carol and Therese’s horrible experiences with those male bastards, as well as a nod to the fact that women are typically the one-note characters in men’s stories. Maybe it was a case of inattentive writing. But it didn’t matter that much.
A note about the Oscars: Rooney Mara should have been lead actress and Cate Blanchett should have been supporting. Mara clearly had the most screen time and story arc, but I think Blanchett’s star-studded name won her the top recognition in this case. And I don’t say this often, but “Carol” really should have been nominated for Best Picture. “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn” and “The Martian” had nothing on it — seriously. And yes, it was much much better and more deserving than “Straight Outta Compton.” But I don’t think enough people saw “Carol.” Oh, well. A masterpiece is a masterpiece, regardless of the awards it gets. Just look at “Citizen Kane.”
Collegian Film Critic Morgan Smith can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MDSFilms.