I’ve decided that if I were a woman, I’d fall in love with Cate Blanchett anyhow. There is something about her in every role I’ve seen that makes you compulsively interested in her character, but really it’s something interesting about Blanchett that leaches through. She is mesmerizing to watch, beautiful but not particularly pretty, but eye catching nonetheless. No surprise then that in the movie Carol when sales clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) spots Carol (Blanchett) across the sales floor that she finds it hard to serve her customers instead of watching her. The divorcing Carol senses something too but manages to discreetly rope in this filly such that the younger Therese is hardly aware that she is the one being pursued. “Accidentally” leaving her gloves on her counter leads to a lunch date, then a Sunday at her house, and then a road trip west.
The time is the early 1950s. President Truman is leaving office, President Eisenhower is coming on board, and America is at its busiest and brassiest. Unsurprisingly the movie starts in at Christmas time in a Manhattan department store where Therese is forced to don silly Santa hats. She does have something of a social life: an interest in photography and a boyfriend that wants to marry her who is more in her friend zone. Mainly Therese is a woman trying to blossom but not knowing quite how.
Carol on the other hand is trying to get out of a bad marriage and is desperately trying to remain a full time mother to her daughter Rindy while not so successfully trying to stay in the closet. It’s true that her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is brash and controlling. Who wouldn’t want to get away from him? It’s clear to Harge though that she prefers women and he’ll use that as leverage. Her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), an ex-lover, lives with her at her palatial upstate home and helps watch over Rindy and the household.
If you saw the movie The Imitation Game wherein Benedict Cumberbatch played the gay professor Alan Turing, you will know what’s in for Carol if she comes out as a lesbian. In Turing’s case, it landed him in prison. Just evidence that Carol might be a lesbian is enough for Rindy to go into her father’s custody while permanent custody is worked out. This makes Carol distraught and emotionally fragile. In other words, it’s not a great time to take on a new lover.
But so it goes. It’s often during turbulent personal times that affairs happen, and her relationship with Therese is something of an extramarital affair too, although they are a few days on their road trip before it gets tacitly acknowledged (they even sleep in separate rooms). Carol just wants to get away from divorce pressures. Therese is changing too, careers as it turns out, but she’s also chasing intimacy, which she doesn’t quite get from her circle of avant-garde New York friends.
Aside from both fine performances by Blanchette and Mara, the recreation of an early 1950s America should pull you into the movie as well. It is understated but well done and finely detailed, and almost a character in itself since that Puritanical decade frames Carol and Therese’s woes and loves. It’s not so much their love relationship that makes the movie special, although I appreciated the honest and understated way director Todd Haynes pulls it off. For me it was more the frame of this story within the gilded cage of its the times that is interesting. This is not a lesbian Love Story; indeed the love between these two women seems ephemeral at best. It’s more a story about navigating Carol’s personal crises, made especially challenging because she has to struggle to keep her daughter in her life. At best Therese provides her with some relief, but actually more in the way of distraction and companionship while these larger events unfold.
If you come to see great acting from Blanchett you will need to wait until the end of the movie. Meanwhile you can feel mesmerized by her presence and the endearing yet subtle way Carol wraps Therese around herself and her life. Can Carol be authentic to herself in these turbulent personal waters? That’s probably the most interesting part of the movie. Seeing lesbianism on the screen is not that big a thing in 2016 and what there is in this movie is softcore. Shot with a sort of grainy look, Carol feels as intimate as its subject; it’s just that the real intimacy in this movie is not their relationship but Carol’s turbulent personal life in which Therese gets caught up in the whirlwind.
Carol is a good movie with a raw and honest feel to it. It might win Blanchett an academy award, but it is a portrait in the small, not in the grandiose. This suits me fine, as I prefer an artsy and intimate film to an overstuffed blockbuster anyhow. It’s a good arts house film, but for discerning filmgoers only.
3.2 out of four-points.