Thursday, January 28, 2016


CAROL (Todd Haynes, 2015)

In CAROL Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) appears to be on the same track of many other young women in the early 1950s. She works in a Manhattan department store and has a boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) who is persistent in wishing to join their lives. Nevertheless, Therese entertains the notion of becoming a photographer and seems to hold Richard at arm’s length. She gives off the distinct sense of not yet knowing where she wants life to take her or how she might arrive at the destination.

That all changes gradually when she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). The glamorous older woman buys a train set for her daugher from Therese, and they have reason to be in touch again when the shopgirl mails Carol the gloves she left on her counter. Carol meets Therese for lunch as a way of saying thanks and is so intrigued by her that she extends an invitation to visit at her home in New Jersey. Carol is in the midst of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and seems quite taken with the curious young woman that Therese is, even if the attraction goes unspoken. Therese is intrigued too, and eventually they depart together on a road trip west during the holidays.

Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, CAROL casts what would have been a socially forbidden romance at the time as a thriller. Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay opens the film in media res with a suspicious air around Therese and Carol conversing in a restaurant while seemingly under someone’s watchful eyes. On the surface there is nothing out of the ordinary about two women sharing a table in a public space, yet the images are charged with the hints of the clandestine. Director Todd Haynes often shoots scenes, particularly their first lunch, with an excess of space above and behind the women. While the framing violates presumed technical rules of composition, it implies the feeling of being observed from behind, of looking over one’s shoulders to be sure that one is not being spied on.

During a brief scene with Therese and friends crammed into a movie theater’s projection booth, one character taking notes remarks that he is tracking the differences between what those on screen are saying and what they are thinking and feeling. It’s as blatant a statement of purpose as possible to describe Haynes’ directorial approach and Nagy’s screenplay. The actions on screen and the dialogue tend to resist making plain the interior lives of the lovers. How Therese and Carol conduct themselves within the frame and what they convey through looks and body language are immeasurably more revealing.

Mara may seem a bit alien as Therese, or “flung out of space” as Carol remarks, but the quiet awkwardness she inhabits suits the part. Therese’s trajectory from impassive participant to controller of her destiny pulsates with the excitement of self-awakening. Still, in keeping with the period and the emotional exterior of the character, Mara’s terrific performance demonstrates her character’s development largely through the eyes. Blanchett’s regal bearing is used to great effect because Carol is somewhat like a queen, or one likely to be deposed. If her divorce is completed, she stands to be deprived of a lot financially and emotionally, yet she carries on how she sees fit unashamedly. Carol possesses the wisdom and scars that Therese has yet to receive. Like Mara, Blanchett is expert at employing glances to show how she envies Therese’s unformed qualities and desires to shield her from the pain that may come in the process. Despite the age and experience differences, Therese and Carol’s romance seems neither predatory nor imbalanced. Although unlikely companions who require time and circumstances to be on equal footing, their love story simmers with the passion of what it means to be seen and accepted in total by another.

Grade: A

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