An unlikely love blossoms in the 1950s in Todd Haynes’s excellent ‘Carol’

January 15, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 15, 2016

Director Todd Haynes develops a romance between a young shop clerk and an elegant married mother in Carol, his new adaptation of a 1952 novel by the American writer Patricia Highsmith.

The title character, an upper-crust New Jerseyan, is played by Cate Blanchett. The exotic Australian actress, who may possess the most prominent cheekbones in history, portrays Carol Aird as a sort of cocktail: four parts confidence and two parts doubt along with an infusion of alcohol and nicotine. (The ratio of the latter two elements varies widely from scene to scene but tends to be high.) When she meets Therese Belivet, the younger woman is working at a Manhattan department store. The mousy, neurotic Belivet, whose first name is pronounced tuh-REZ, is so low on the store’s totem pole that she’s subjected to a manager’s withering regard for having the temerity to ask to borrow a pencil and paper.

The movie is framed by a meeting Therese and Carol have at a hotel tea service — potentially their very last encounter — that’s interrupted by one of Belivet’s friends.

Carol is in the process of divorcing Harge Aird (Kyle Chandler, the straight-laced FBI agent in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street). The resentful Harge becomes suspicious of Belivet the moment he sees her, and he is more than willing to use evidence of a lesbian liaison as leverage in the divorce proceedings.

Belivet is dating Richard Semco (Jake Lacy), a younger, less well-heeled version of Harge who’s cajoling Therese into marrying and/or taking a honeymoon in Europe. But the reluctant Belivet is more interested in taking photographs — although usually not of people, which she sees as an invasion of privacy — and talking to her friend who works for The New York Times than she is in reciprocating the affections of either Richard or her reporter pal. (I didn’t catch this character’s name.)

Carol takes its time developing its romance. Ironically, the relationship between Carol and Therese becomes more serious when Harge uses a “morality clause” to win an injunction barring Carol from seeing their young daughter, Rindy. The forced respite from part-time mothering frees Carol to take a road trip through the Midwest, and when Carol invites her new friend to accompany her, Therese says yes with hardly a moment’s hesitation. She’s fended off Richard’s not-so-subtle insistence on taking a major trip for weeks, if not months, so naturally he’s none too pleased to learn that Therese is taking off on a trip with a woman his girlfriend hardly knows.

There’s not too much more to the plot than this. Carol beautifully captures the emotions of falling in love — all the infatuation, vulnerability and thrill of it — while aptly conveying a sense of the time and place that was America in the early 1950s. Much more so than, say, Trumbo, the costumes, props and sets of Carol communicate a feeling of being not just in a different year but in a different era.

Carol was adapted by playwright Phyllis Nagy from The Price of Salt, which Highsmith published pseudonymously in order to avoid being “labelled a lesbian-book writer.” Nagy’s only other screen credit was writing and directing Mrs. Harris, a TV adaptation of a book about an infamous 1982 murder. Haynes is an eclectic director who has something of a specialty in making movies about musicians, including I’m Not There, in which multiple actors portrayed iconic folk singer Bob Dylan or aspects of his persona, and the notorious featurette Superstar, in which he used dolls to depict the tragically abbreviated life of singer Karen Carpenter.

Haynes has a fine ensemble and uses his cast to excellent effect. Blanchett is mesmerizing, as usual, while Mara is excellent as a downtrodden and drifting department-store drone who isn’t quite ready to give up on her dreams. The younger actress is reminiscent of a working-class Audrey Hepburn. It’s not surprising to me that Blanchett and Mara cinched Oscar nominations for best actress and best supporting actress, respectively, the morning after I saw the movie.

In the end, Carol feels a lot like its young protagonist: A gem, excellent but not flashy. It’s a fine movie for those who love character studies.

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