Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Phyllis Nagy
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacey, Carrie Brownstein.
Todd Haynes makes very pretty movies. One must not look farther than 2002’s Far from Heaven to realize that the man pays attention to detail and can truly capture an era in all its vibrancy and beauty. Time and again his scrupulous eye is brought to period pieces where even the smallest of details is accounted for, from the glam rock period in the 70s (Velvet Goldmine) to a 60s film following different stages in Bob Dylan’s life (I’m Not There). The director also chooses gorgeous shots and beautiful angles, his films look like paintings, his canvas is then immortalized by his lens and the end result is always a visually compelling beauty that sometimes takes the breath away. Something that Haynes is missing, though, is heart. His films are unreachable, impenetrable. Subtlety is his forte, the problem is that sometimes a work can become so subtle that any emotion is wholly undetectable. In his newest film, Carol, this is once again his biggest issue. The movie is gorgeous, from the sets to the props and the costumes, but for a story about an illicit romance the film is stone cold like the winter it takes place in. Similarly to the glossy Tom Ford feature A Single Man from a few years ago, what we are left with feels more of a beautifully shot commercial with stunning actors somewhat emoting, but little else.
I am really disappointed because this was one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year and the one I had the most hopes for, both in terms of plot and acting, specifically Cate Blanchett’s. I kept waiting to feel invested in the storyline, I searched the movie for clues on what each actor’s motivation was, I wanted to feel the urgency of the high stakes the movie supposedly was meant to evoke. I didn’t get any of that. All I was provided with was a Christmas tale of melancholy that will be mostly memorable for design and couture elements and not much else. Once in a while a movie arrives that immediately starts sweeping all the awards and garners so much praise, more so than any of its competitors. At times I get what the fuss is about, and absolutely contribute to it, but not always. Unfortunately this is a case in which I just don’t understand the brouhaha, especially in a year in which I’ve seen some very worthy films that seem to not be talked about as much as I think they should be.
Effectively this film is a two woman show, a tete-a-tete between the supreme Cate Blanchett and the understated Rooney Mara. Cate Blanchett is one of my favorite actresses and someone I rely on to always turn in a phenomenal performance. When a couple of years I went with friends to go see Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine I walked out of the theater on cloud nine, immediately pronouncing her the winner of the next year’s Oscar (it was the beginning of summer), and simply couldn’t stop singing her praises on the way home. She has excelled time and again, and there are times in this film in which I was definitely engaged in her story. However, I only connected with her character, the titular Carol, when she was interacting with her family and combatively estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). When it meant the most, her connection to her younger paramour Therese, I felt absolutely nothing. Therese is played by Rooney Mara, and I am inclined to place a large part of the blame for the film’s shortcomings on her. I had to look up her filmography and while I have seen her in a couple of films (The Social Network and Her), her parts in them I cannot recall at all. I haven’t watched some of her bigger roles either because of disinterest or because I simply have never heard of them. Either way Mara’s vacant stares and subdued to the point of comatose performance is not my cup of tea. I am not someone who needs an actor to ACT and perform some major scenery chewing to appreciate what they bring to the table, but if they’re just there, it starts to feel like laziness and a lack of talent instead of a stylistic choice for the role. Part of my opinion may also be clouded by the fact that a friend of mine went to high school with Mara, and has told me that even back then she was just present, not terribly memorable and even though she appeared in many of the school’s plays, her blah approach to roles has largely remained unchanged. Some people seem to absolutely love her, so I will just say that she is not my cup of tea and leave it at that.
The story between Carol and Therese is supposed to be a taboo love story, a secretive affair taking place during a time when relations and love between members of the same sex remained unspoken, and if not, had to be conducted with careful surreptitiously clandestine behavior. Brokeback Mountain was a beautiful film that captured the fear of being discovered without ever going over the top, so it is a shame that Carol wasn’t able to bring the same dangerous paranoia and peril to the story without becoming camp. The only energy is provided a few times by Blanchett and by some of the supporting actors. The aforementioned Chandler (Bloodline, Friday Night Lights) does a very nice job as a put upon husband still very much in love with his wife and yet completely taken aback and incredulous of his wife’s sexuality. Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story, 12 Years a Slave) also shines as Carol’s former girlfriend and confidant. Her scenes are few, but each one is refreshing and more human than what she walks into or leaves in her wake.
It’s not surprising that Therese wishes to become a photographer. It just would have been nice if Haynes, like his protagonist, had been less preoccupied with getting the perfect shot and cared more about bringing some humanity and a spark to the still life that he otherwise has created.