Weekend Movie Fare: Carol

Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Carol

Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett

Hailed as a top Oscar contender this year in numerous categories—best director, film, actress, and cinematography—Carol (trailer) is the story of a wealthy but unhappily married woman (played by Cate Blanchett) who embarks on a relationship with a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) she meets by chance. Unquestionably, it’s a period piece (nice Packards!), written by author Patricia Highsmith, herself a lesbian, who wrote high-class mysteries like The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it would have had considerably more shock value—and prompted more audience reflection—in its 1952 novel version, The Price of Salt.

In a story set in that era and with the social class differences involved, there are lots of ways for this relationship to go wrong. Worse, with a husband willing to play his ace—custody of his and Carol’s four-year-old daughter Rindy—the stakes are high. Yet, I didn’t find this movie either engaging or revelatory. Of course Blanchett is terrific, as always, though even she may underplay the role of Carol through most of the film. Mara, as the initially childlike Therese Belivet, is so indeterminate that it’s hard to root for her happiness (what would that require, exactly?) and even harder to see what the glamorous, sophisticated Carol sees in her. Perhaps director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy hoped that, by making Mara more or less a cipher, viewers would be free to pin their own romantic hopes and dreams on her.

In the New York Times, critic A.O.Scott calls Carol “a study in human magnetism, in the physics and optics of eros . . . (giving) emotional and philosophical weight to what might be a perfectly banal question: What do these women see each in each other.” That was my question, all right. Therese says she is almost will-less, that the complications in her life arise because all she ever does is say “yes,” and the film takes on the challenge of imbuing her most important affirmation with real meaning. In a season where we’ve seen so many excellent high-drama films, this one, to me, did less than I would have liked it to. I’d give it a B-.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences: 79%.

6 thoughts on “Weekend Movie Fare: Carol

  1. I appreciate your detailed review of Carol, although I found the film much more engaging than you. My comment here, though, is regarding a curious phrase in your review: “written by lesbian author Patricia Highsmith.” That was rather jarring to me as I can’t imagine your using phrases such as “heterosexual author” or “Black author” or “Jewish author”. As you noted, Patricia Highsmith is most known for suspense and psychological novels, so I find it inappropriate to label her a “lesbian author.” The fact that she was herself a lesbian may or may not be relevant but I guess I would have explained such a fact in a different way, if at all, e.g. that she said this novel was based on a personal experience.. Thanks, Victoria. I enjoy reading your book and film reviews.

    • You are absolutely right. Thank you for the reminder that I meant to go back and correct that to “lesbian and author.” The fact that she had female lovers itself I thought was important to the review, especially for someone writing in that era, because it means she could describe the characters’ situations with internal verisimilitude and really more compassion than they were likely to encounter IRL. I’m glad you enjoy the reviews, and I appreciate the comment. Part of my disappointment with the movie was the result of very high expectations. I was left with a bit of a “what’s all the fuss about?” feeling.

      • Agree with all. There was a real sense of authenticity of Carol, Abby and Therese’s feelings, which no doubt comes from Highsmith’s own reality of living during this era as a woman who loved women. I loved the period settings, clothes, etc.. Lush, as it has been described. And the score was haunting to me. I would agree with you that I was slightly let down, probably due to my own high expectations, but also perhaps gave it the benefit of the doubt for the same reason! (BTW, I like how you re-wrote the sentence about Highsmith.)

  2. I agree with your assessment, Vicki. Although the cinematography and costumes (for Carol) were extraordinary, there was a chill and distance in the film that was palpable (even if intended), even though I admired Blanchett’s and Mara’s efforts.

  3. Go watch Die Hard II if you want believability (HAHAHA) what film did you see? Mara Rooney was amazing in her indecisive intensity as Therese. The stillness, slowness, and absolute lush, non-verbal emotion was amazing. If the pace of the dialogue or lack of Hollywood jibber jabber is what makes this such a luscious film. Clearly you missed it. Did you talk through it self consciously, or just rely on the synopsis to write your review. B- is off the mark. Blanchett and Rooney are amazing, nothing superficial or obtuse here, you misread this one.

    • Yes, I certainly did miss it. As a big Blanchett fan, I appreciate her many intelligent performances. She is so restrained throughout this movie (my guess is this was a directorial choice), the scene near the end where she finally lets loose comes without any groundwork laid for it. I’m not at all a fan of cheaply won emotionality, and I do believe it’s possible to have powerful emotions expressed without ranting and raving. For example, watch for my review next week of The Danish Girl, which I think manages to be both devastatingly emotional AND subtle. But, as they say, these differences of opinion are what make horse races! I can’t speak for Die Hard II, though, as I’ve never seen it. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

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