Friday, January 15, 2016

Carol: Nothing to sing about

Carol (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for nudity and intimate sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.15.16

Intimate dramas work best when we understand and empathize with the primary characters: when we feel like we know them.

Even during their first meeting, Therese (Rooney Mara, left) can't help noticing the
smoldering, come-hither gaze that Carol (Cate Blanchett) delivers with a shameless
lack of subtlety.
Despite the scrupulous care with which director Todd Haynes has assembled his new film, it’s almost impossible to become involved with the storyline. The narrative is slow, the tone is sweepingly luxurious, and the performances are overstated: all intentional, since Haynes is imitating the opulent 1950s melodramas made by director Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and many others).

Which would be fine, if playwright Phyllis Nagy had done a better job with her adaptation of The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel on which this film is based.

Granted, Cate Blanchett delivers another of her carefully sculpted performances as protagonist Carol Aird (although I’d argue that Blanchett did the “anguished socialite” shtick much better in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).

But despite the film’s title, Carol isn’t the most important character in this story, as Highsmith made abundantly clear in her novel. That would be the younger Therese Belivet, who remains an utter cipher as portrayed by co-star Rooney Mara. It’s not entirely her fault; she hits the higher emotional notes reasonably well. But Mara’s Therese has too much “down time,” when she simply stares vacantly toward the camera, as if waiting for Haynes’ next instruction.

More to the point, we know nothing about Therese: her background, the reason she’s so arbitrarily bitchy toward longtime boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy, who does his best in a thankless role), or — most crucially — why she’s so suddenly infatuated with Carol. We get none of the essential back-story present in Highsmith’s novel.

OK, fine; Therese is trying to “find herself.” But that isn’t good enough; Mara doesn’t sell her half of the dynamic, and therefore the entire film sinks beneath the weight of its own flamboyantly breathy ambiance.

Haynes opens on a polite but chilly restaurant meeting between Carol and Therese: an encounter pregnant with tension, which then leads to an extended, how-did-we-get-here flashback beloved by melodrama.

Suddenly it’s December in early 1950s New York, where Therese works as a clerk in the toy section of a posh department store. Her supervisor seems to loathe her, for reasons never explained: one of this film’s many clumsy details.

Therese spots an imposingly chic older woman wrapped in fur; that would be Carol, seeking a Christmas gift for her 4-year-old daughter, Rindy. Therese rebuffs the suggestion of a doll — never having fancied them herself, as a child — and instead up-sells Carol to a spiffy model train set.

(That, gentle reader, is all we ever learn about Therese. That she didn’t play with dolls. Which one assumes Nagy intends as A Clue.)

The transaction completed, Therese notices that Carol left her gloves behind. Suspecting this may not have been accidental, Therese arranges to have them mailed back (Carol’s address having been noted when she asked that the train set be shipped).

Carol calls the store to thank Therese, and invites the younger woman to visit her at home. During these early days, we also glimpse details of each woman’s individual routine. Therese pals about with Richard and a few other friends, notably Dannie (John Magaro), who has a job at the New York Times and encourages her interest in photography.

Carol, meanwhile, seems separated, estranged or Something Else from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who vacillates between earnestly pleading for intimacy he clearly isn’t getting, and furious displays of often drunken temper. Chandler’s performance is as uneven as the character he plays; Harge’s rages are jarring and feel out of place in the film’s otherwise refined atmosphere.

Harge and Carol try to behave themselves around Rindy (played adorably by twins Sadie and Kk Heim), on whom her mother obviously dotes.

When Therese makes that planned visit, she unwittingly prompts yet another nasty argument between Carol and Harge. Therese can’t really flee — the Airds live in a tony neighborhood, far from her modest city apartment — and, truth be told, doesn’t want to. By this point, the two women have begun a flirtatious dance (although, initially, it feels like Carol is the predator, and Therese the prey).

But the overall situation grows worse. Harge files a nasty legal action demanding full custody of Rindy, on the grounds that Carol is an unfit mother because of her “immoral behavior” (referencing not Therese, but Carol’s longtime best friend Abby, quite clearly gay, and sensitively played by Sarah Paulson). Faced with the possible loss of her beloved daughter, Carol ...

... impulsively decides to take a lengthy road trip west to clear her head.

She invites Therese. Who accepts.

Their relationship progresses in the anticipated manner.

This is a tough sell at both ends. Given Harge’s existing legal threat, it’s difficult to imagine that Carol would chance making his accusations worse by traveling with an already “suspect” female companion. Even in the 1950s, people couldn’t hide that easily. As for Therese, her impulsive decision to join Carol is intended to reflect an infatuation that is blossoming into love, but Mara’s one-note, deer-in-the-headlights expressions simply aren’t enlightening.

Other awkward developments get tossed in, starting with the unexpected fact that Carol is carrying a gun. That is so out of left field; what, precisely, does she intend to do with it? And if Harge is hell-bent on punishing his wife, how is it that she continues to spend money like water? Wouldn’t he shut down her access to their bank accounts?

A lot of this stuff wouldn’t matter, if Carol and Therese — which is to say, Blanchett and Mara — engaged us more persuasively. We’d be more caught up in the hungry passion of two people succumbing sweetly, no matter the consequences, to a love that was forbidden in this era. Try as they might, though, Haynes, Nagy and their two stars can’t make us believe.

I kept waiting for the narrative verisimilitude — the honesty — that made Haynes’ breakout film, 2002’s Far from Heaven, so engaging. Never happens.

Frankly, it feels like Haynes paid too little attention to the story, and his two stars, in favor of so meticulously re-creating the look and style of the 1950s: not merely the setting, but the way his film is put together.

Director of photography Ed Lachman shot on Super 16mm, which reproduces the grainy texture of the era’s 35mm cinematography. Production designer Judy Becker employed a distinct color palette that emphasizes the post-WWII (and here I’m quoting the press notes) “sour greens, yellows and dirty pinks.”

Three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell unerringly nails the period garb; she and hair stylist Jerry Decarlo do a particularly fine job with Mara, accentuating Therese’s mousy timidity.

Indeed, everything — and everybody — are all dressed up ... but with nowhere to go. Highsmith’s novel was a daring landmark of lesbian fiction for its time; it’s a shame, given the many other touching LGBT film and TV dramas arriving during the past several years, that Haynes and Nagy didn’t honor this one better.


  1. Haven't read one of your reviews in a long time. Other things pulling my attention. Reading this reminds me why I love reading you. You say what needs to be said with style. Thanks!

  2. Much obliged for the kind words. Glad to have you back!