Film Review: Carol

CarolCarol (The Weinstein Company)
US Release: 20 November 2015
MPAA Rating: R (Restricted)
Running Time: 118 min 

A Review of Carol  
by Brandon Taylor, @brandonrambles

The first sound you hear in Carol is a dull roar, like the sea calling across some great distance. Eventually, a rhythmic clacking emerges, and the roar is transfigured into the sound of a passing train—this is a fitting opening for a movie like Carol, which is so much a story about the ordinary magic of transformation and transportation.

I must admit that I am predisposed to love a movie like Carol—I love period pieces, with all of their gorgeous cinematography and costuming. There is an earnestness, a seriousness to the dialogue in such movies, and people speak in an elliptical, freighted way about the seemingly banal rhythms of their lives. I have watched Jane Eyre (the lovely 2013 version featuring Mia Wasikowska as the titular character) dozens of times, and Becoming Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Anna Karenina, and The Duchess also feature highly on my most-watched lists. I have an affinity for women in desperate straits, who inhabit a now vanished time, when glances held weight and the dark corridors of our lives held some mysterious, supernatural charge.

Carol features beautiful costumes (every coat made me sigh in envy) and there were so many stunning visual moments that I drove the woman sitting next to me crazy with all my sighing and gasping. For instance, there is the first time we see Carol’s home, rising out of a wall of snow, grey and solemn with windows taken right out of a Bronte novel. It takes little effort to imagine Carol sitting at one of these high arching, windows, filigree like black lace, staring out into the night, perhaps thinking to herself that it all could have gone so very differently. When Carol speaks, her voice seldom rises about a firm whisper, as if her native language were the confidential, the secret disclosed to only the closest of friends. I believe it is this confidential nature that some people misconstrue as coldness. I do not find Carol cold at all. She does not give much away because she feels as though much has already been given. Cate Blanchett imbues Carol with a simmering wildness, sensitivity easily prickled and brought to the surface. She is alive to the touch of the world and holds back lest she find herself brought completely out of herself and dissolved in a world that is far too cruel to women like her. Look to the way her eyes widen when she glances at Therese, when she finds herself surprised or caught unaware. She finds us all so amusing.

I find it difficult to characterize a movie like Carol, which is at once about nothing and everything that makes life worth living. On one level, it’s a movie about a romance between two women during a time when such relationships were taboo. On another level, it’s a movie about motherhood and desperation. On yet another level, it’s a movie about independence and trying to make your way in the world. Of course the truth is that Carol is about all of these things and more still.

As a character study, Carol goes further than the novel on which it is based in its focus on Carol herself. The novel, The Price of Salt, is told exclusively through Therese’s perspective, and so we are left to infer Carol’s intentions and motivations. Therese makes a sensitive and articulate narrator, becoming more and more adept at reading Carol’s motives and moods as the novel progresses. The novel rests on Therese’s keen intelligence and gorgeous sensitivity to the smallest details of life. The movie has chosen to make Therese a stranger to the audience. In the scope of the film, Therese is but a small speck at the corner of our eye. When she speaks, it is with a simpering fear, afraid to perturb the delicate balance that keeps Carol in her life. Carol, meanwhile, has become the center of our gaze. Her life is more exposed to us in the film. We see, for example, how she and Harge fight. There is a brief physical altercation between Carol and Harge on the night Therese comes to visit Carol in the country that never took place in the novel. The film portrays Carol’s attachments to her marriage and former life as messy and passionate—these attachments in the novel were thin and already atrophying by the time Therese even arrived on the scene. Certainly there was more drama in the film surrounding Carol’s impending divorce. Harge seemed much more determined to keep Carol in his life in the film, seemed in so many ways to still be in love with her, which is a curious decision on the part of the screenwriter and director.

A thought to which I keep returning is the role of men in Carol and the danger they pose to the relationship between Therese and Carol. In The Price of Salt, the relationships between women are central and manifold. The relationship between Therese and Carol is complex because it spans class and age. They are women of different generations and different social expectations, yet they come together in a way that is unique and wonderful. They do not discuss their relationship only, but rather go over the facts of their lives. Therese’s mother issues come up against Carol’s own crisis of motherhood regarding her daughter, and they work through this point of friction in a way that is gentle and subtle. Men are only a minor nuisance, as integral to the story as a piece of furniture. Men form the boundaries of their lives. However, Carol permits the men more agency and turns them loose on the women. Harge is at once a total terror and yet made into a bullish oaf. Therese is seen receiving a lecture from her boyfriend of sorts, Richard, one evening by the pond. Therese, who in the novel never shrank from a man nor considered herself inferior, physically shrank away from him as he yelled in the movie.

The presence of the men in Carol is meant as a kind of shorthand for a disapproving society. Harge’s frustration is on full display when he appears at the home of Carol’s friend, Abby, one night, banging on the door and demanding to see Carol. It’s a strange moment and seemingly random, serving only to remind the audience of what is at stake for Carol if she continues her relationship with Therese. It also serves to signal to the audience that something is coming for the two of them as they chart their way across the country, some dark and malicious force sent by Harge to bring Carol back to him. The actions of men seem governed not exactly by inner machinations of character—for the men are not developed as complete people in Carol—but rather by some intent, by some necessary organizing principle, the sole purpose of which is to remind us that love between women is a forbidden thing in this time. The novel does not dwell on homophobia—the moment that Therese realizes that the world would rather see them apart and miserable than together and content is a moment of crackling, startling beauty in The Price of Salt, and it is a revelation to the modern reader, who would have assumed that fear and intrigue would be the core of a homosexual relationship during the time of the novel. That Therese and Carol revolve around in each other in an intricate dance dictated by their own personal gravity rather than by the codified norms of society is a testament to Highsmith’s ingenuity.

You find no such thing in Carol, where the elegance of the dance has been smoothed into a predictable series of convolutions around the desires of men. One advantage in Carol would seem to be that with so few private moments between the two of them, with so little paradise allotted to them in their own arms, the beauty of their time together in dingy hotels would be heightened by its rarity. Certainly, there are moments when Carol soars, moments of gorgeous simplicity: Carol’s warm affection for Therese is apparent as Therese sleeps with her head against the window. Another moment, the exchange of sandwiches, the delicate brushing of hands and fingers.

Carol’s divorce from Harge sits at the center of this film like a heavy rock, stealing much of its momentum. We don’t return to it except to allow Cate Blanchett moments of stunning drama, where she whirls about the room with wild, sad eyes and declares, “We aren’t ugly people, Harge.” Carol rests on her quietly intense portrayal of a woman trapped in a system ruled by men, permitted freedom only on the narrow terms that they dictate. This of course is how modern audiences interface with stories of queer desire, which must always be thwarted, must always be hunted to extinction by careless, oafish beasts who just don’t understand us. Queerness is a rare bird, delicate and flighty, and modern audiences don’t know it except to see it caught and strangled. I found it rather cheap, but again, owing to the constraints of the form, it becomes easy to see the pay off. We are familiar with the woman who has nowhere to go and everything to lose, a woman who must choose between one love and another, though both may be essential to her very happiness. We know that queer desire must be punished or at least given a run for its life. These familiar tropes find a home in Carol, much to the film’s detriment, because in shifting focus to Carol’s divorce from Harge, we have sacrificed time and energy that otherwise might have been spent on making Therese as interesting in the film as she is in the novel. Rather than lingering on Harge at Abby’s door, frustrated and alone, we might have stayed near Therese’s eyes as she gazed down at her developing pictures in the inky embryonic space of her darkroom. But the film does not. Rather, it feeds us another diluted courtroom drama and puts Carol through the emotional ringer, after all, what is love if not suffering?

However, it is out of this suffering that Therese and Carol emerge together. In the final scenes of the film, Therese has come to find to Carol at the Oak Room, likely to take her up on her offer to begin a life together. At first, she struggles to locate Carol among the other women of her class—flashes of blonde hair draw her eye, but she cannot find her. It so very much like the first time Therese glimpsed Carol at the department store, everything dependent on that single magical moment when for no reason at all Therese lifted her head and caught sight of a beautiful woman near a display case. Now, in the Oak Room, with a fresh start on the line, Therese drifts around the room, searching, searching. Just when she is about to give up, she spots Carol at a table. Carol senses her gaze and looks up to see Therese. One of those wry smiles crosses her lips. Therese, who has spent the entire movie gazing, suddenly becomes the object of Carol’s eye. The audience feels the weight of her stare, the power in her eyes. A glance across a crowded room is all it takes to communicate that all is forgiven. The betrayal of vacillation, wavering trust, and any lingering hurt feelings are forgotten or put aside.

This is perhaps the greatest example of the magic of transformation at work in Carol, that a single held gaze between two ordinary women becomes an embrace that articulates all the love and hope they have for the future.

Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a 2015 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction, and his work has appeared in Chicago Literati, Noble Gas Quarterly, Wildness, and Jonathan.

Submit a comment