This past year was a landmark for gay rights, as marriage equality was finally made legal in all 50 states. While the LGBT community may still have a long fight ahead of them against bigotry and profiling and whatnot, there is very definitely a sense that the tide has turned. Mainstream acceptance of homosexuals and same-sex relationships is here to stay. Which naturally means that artistic statements in favor of gay equality aren’t nearly as bold or relevant as they were even a year ago.
Yet here we are with Carol, adapted from a 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel. Highsmith’s work is no stranger to cinema, as her works were previously the basis for The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train, The Two Faces of January, and others. This time, the film was written by Phillis Nagy (here making her debut) and directed by Todd Haynes (who dealt with similar issues in 2002’s Far From Heaven).
And what is the film about? It’s about Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara engaging in an extramarital affair. There may be a bit more going on, but really nothing of interest.
To elaborate, Mara plays Therese (that’s “tuh-REZ”) Belivet, a young department store clerk in New York City. She’s entertained thoughts of working as a photographer, but she’s never taken the notion seriously. She’s been pursued by bland and boring young men, and she keeps stringing them along because she doesn’t have the spine to either marry one or tell them all to fuck off.
Our protagonist is so withdrawn and her noncommittal life is so dull that the movie drags its feet until she meets the eponymous Carol (Blanchett). But here’s a twist: While Carol may still technically be married, she’s currently in the middle of a nasty divorce. So it’s not like seeing Therese is some huge secret that threatens to ruin her marriage and she’s not necessarily cheating if the marriage has been called off to begin with.
That said, it’s established that Carol already has at least one same-sex lover in her past (Abby, played by Sarah Paulson). And this ex-lover also just happens to be the godmother of Carol’s daughter (Rindy, alternately played by sisters Sadie and Kk Heim). It’s not entirely clear whether this past love was a contributing factor in the marriage’s failure, but the fact remains that (to put it mildly,) Carol’s sexual preferences are very much frowned upon in the 1950s setting of this story. Which means that Carol’s husband (inexplicably named Harge, played by Kyle Chandler) could use it as leverage to take full custody of their child.
To recap: Therese is a young woman feeling alone and adrift, unable to connect with anyone else her age and unsure of what she wants or where she’s going. While Carol is feeling alone and adrift because of her divorce, but at least she has a firm grip on who she is, even if she isn’t entirely clear on how to balance her lesbian identity with her duties as a mother. Remember, this is the 1950s — never mind homosexuals earning the right to adopt or raise kids, they were still earning the right to be openly gay.
That said, it’s not like anyone gets on a soapbox about gay equality or homophobia. Though both are tangentially discussed, it’s more about using lesbianism to bring a new perspective on the themes of identity, the unpredictable nature of love, and two loner misfits finding comfort and understanding in each other’s company. The gay angle does a lot to freshen up those tired ideas, especially in a time when homosexuality was still the kind of dangerous secret that could bring two people together in their shared efforts to keep it from the outside world.
The two characters and their relationship are developed in such a way that it’s easy to get emotionally attached. It’s genuinely interesting to see how these two characters fall in love and help each other grow. Of course, it helps that Blanchett and Mara have smoldering chemistry that’s easily enough to power the whole film.
And because I know this will be a factor for some, let’s get it out of the way: Yes, there is a graphic nude scene between the two leads. Nothing on the level of Blue is the Warmest Color, obviously, just a very sweet and steamy scene of two women affirming their shared attraction by making love. Blanchett is mostly covered, but Mara’s chest is in full view. So if you wanted to know, now you know.
Anyway, it’s a good thing the two leads are so strong, because the rest of the film is pathetically underwhelming.
Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler are both champion character actors who’ve done far more with less, so they at least come out okay. Aside from those two, the supporting cast is loaded with nonentities. Carrie Brownstein (a fellow Portlander, God help my city) pokes her head in briefly, clearly playing a character who was offered as a sacrifice to the cutting room floor. We’ve also got Cory Michael Smith in a couple of scenes as a guy who’s transparently untrustworthy because he’s played by Young Edward Nygma, for fuck’s sake. And then we have the parade of Therese’s friends and would-be suitors, every one of whom has a higher percentage of post-consumer recycled content than the one before. I couldn’t tell one of them from another with a gun to my head.
The sad truth is that the whole film is stuck spinning its wheels until the central romance finally sparks. What makes it even worse is that we open with Carol and Therese at dinner and the rest of the story is told in flashback. We already know from the word “go” that these two will end up together, and everything before that point is just filler. I know that would normally be the point when we’d learn more about the characters, but the lead characters are so boring and ineffectual without each other that neither one of them gets much in the way of development until the central romance starts rolling. And I hope I’ve already made it clear that there’s nothing about anyone in the supporting cast that’s really worth knowing. Certainly nothing we ever learn, anyway.
It doesn’t help that the visuals are dull and uninspired, seemingly drained of all life. The one exception is in the costume design, which uses red in a very striking and symbolic way. Likewise, the score is nothing more than so much white noise, though there is the occasional jazz song to spice things up.
Carol is a perfectly serviceable romance, centered around homosexual themes that are utilized in interesting ways, surrounded by so much filler. It’s a good thing Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are so electric, because the film drags painfully when they’re not onscreen together. Which means that the first and third acts are padded to the gills, full of empty shots and characters who aren’t worth a damn.
This one has “DVD rental” written all over it.