Queer cinema has taken a significant step into the mainstream over the last decade, with a number of high-profile films dealing with queer themes garnering critical acclaim and box office success. However, a majority of these have focused on relationships between men. Many of them have been superb, like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), ‘Weekend’ (2011) and last year's ‘Holding the Man’, but I can’t think of any "major" film that has broken the public consciousness that properly centred on the romantic relationship between two women. That seems about to change though (and about time) with ‘Carol’, the latest film from acclaimed director Todd Haynes. Like ‘Brokeback’, its cast of major talents has led to it attracting the attention of the wider public - and all for the better because, also like ‘Brokeback’, it presents a relationship between two women and its repercussions with just as much respect.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young woman working as a shop assistant in New York in 1952. She has aspirations of being a photographer, but her destiny seems entwined with the social expectations of getting married and becoming a housewife. However, Therese’s life is thrown into a spin when she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a gorgeous socialite who awakens a need within Therese she’s never experienced before. As Therese and Carol fall into a passionate affair, they face attack and separation from Carol’s ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who threatens to bring both their lives crashing down around them.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel ‘The Price of Salt’ by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, ‘Carol’ is easily one of the most elegant films of the past few years, Haynes and Nagy translating the frustration and passion of Therese and Carol’s relationship into a series of haunting and heartbreaking images. We don’t need to be told how one feels about the other, because it is written so beautifully on each of their faces. It’s common knowledge how difficult relationships between men were at that time, but what ‘Carol’ highlights are the even greater difficulties women faced. Not only was this a society where relations between women were seen as unnatural, but one where the position of women was so clearly defined as being in the home, supporting the husband. Neither Therese nor Carol are women of such make - Therese contains a hidden artistic talent, while Carol smashes against the walls the men in her life have put around her. For Therese to simply walk into Carol’s home is an act of sedition, but one far too important for both women not to take. And in retaliation, their safety is thrown into question, their jobs and positions threatened, and even Carol’s daughter used as a weapon to defeat and subdue her. This ends up being the unexpected power of ‘Carol’ - while Haynes keeps it moving at a considered pace, and both the cinematography from Edward Lachman and the design from Judy Becker and Sandy Powell craft a world of almost sleepy melancholy, there’s tremendous emotional violence running throughout the film, violence that occasionally cracks that melancholy and bursts into moments of tremendous pain. This is also helped by Carter Burwell’s magnificent score, every note aching with longing and desire. It’s a credit to the incredible craft of this film that all the elements are working towards this end, to not lose the opportunity presented the film to make significant comment about the way society perceives both homosexual relationships between women in general.
‘Carol’ is easily one of the most elegant films of the past few years.
One of the big drawcards for the film is its exceptional cast, headlined by two of the finest actors of their generations. Of course Cate Blanchett is terrific as Carol, turning in a performance that feels like a riff on the melodrama we know from Bette Davis or Vivian Leigh. Both of these women are hiding great pain, and Carol hides hers behind bells and whistles. She’s uncompromising and determined, and Blanchett sinks her teeth into the part with tremendous energy. This works beautifully against the understated and stunning performance from Rooney Mara, who crafts Therese into something incredibly delicate but determined to survive. This is easily her finest work to date, and I’d go so far as to say that ‘Carol’ really belongs to Mara. Her work here is detailed and utterly heartbreaking. More importantly, the chemistry between Blanchett and Mara is electric, and while each is excellent on their own terms, the screen sparkles every moment they’re together. The attraction and deep affection between these women is utterly believable, and the film is all the better for it. It’s also worth noting that Kyle Chandler is also excellent as Harge. It’s not easy to pull off that kind of inbuilt sexism and homophobia with conviction and sympathy, but he does it beautifully. Sarah Paulson is also radiant and rousing as Carol’s long-time friend Abby.
‘Carol’ is a beguiling and important film, once that creeps up on you and pulls powerfully at your emotions. In the last few minutes, after sitting quietly for the duration of the film, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by what I was seeing. Where Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy decide to leave Therese Carol is both completely right and unexpectedly revelatory for a queer film. Every moment of ‘Carol’ pulses with longing, two people drawn passionately towards one another in a world built not just to keep them apart but keep them repressed. This film could not have come at a more important time for cinema and for our understanding of the rights of women. While turgid films like ‘The Danish Girl’ prance around under the guise of having something important to show about non-heterosexual people and relationships without actually saying anything at all, ‘Carol’ very quietly and elegantly sweeps in and does just that with far more ferocity and conviction. This is an example of cinema at its very finest.