In December, like many queer cinema fans, I flocked to the cinema to see Todd Haynes' highly anticipated movie, Carol. On its opening weekend I ran, cash in hand, to my nearest Odeon, eager to see the movie I'd waited so long for. The trailers promised a sweeping tale of romance and drama, with a talented cast and swoon-worthy cinematography. It definitely delivered!
The film's plot follows the development of a chance encounter between the introverted and sensitive Therese and the enigmatic, charismatic Carol, and is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt. The film shares its name with the later-published version of the book, this adjustment a more fitting encapsulation of the story- though both the book and the film are from Therese's point of view, all that matters is the eyes of the protagonist is Carol. Being set in 1950s New York, the film not only depicts the relationship between the two central characters, but also addresses the impact the relationship has upon the environment around them.
Carol draws a lot of inspiration from one of my favourite films, Brief Encounter, a 1945 David Lean picture. Todd Haynes reportedly wanted to imitate the movie's framing device as a narrative- the film opens upon the characters going their seprate ways, and then backtracks to the story's origin. This way of storytelling keeps you guessing the context of the opening scene, and by the time we reach it, we are desperate to know what happens next. We've all sat in a restaurant or coffee shop and spotted conversations that have intrigued us, and in the cases of both titles, we get to see the tales behind them. Both Carol and Brief Encounter discuss relationships in a world where their love is taboo due to societal expectations- Brief Encounter featuring the tale of unfaithful affairs, and Carol of course depicting a lesbian relationship. Both films are also beautiful in thier subtelty and poetic dialogue.
While many romanctic pictures portray love as an ultimately positive emotion and experience, Carol gives us something more realistic, more relatable and more tantalisting. Through Therese we see the entire emotional spectrum of falling in love- happiness at finding a soul to attach to, confusion and hope as to the reciprocation of feelings, sheer pain at seeing the beloved tortured, and for some, betrayal (no spoilers here) and the rebuilding of your spirit. While in the film there are many moments of joy and optimism, there is an overwhelming sense of sadness, of complication and circumstance, as we see the story through the eyes of worrier Therese. We will the characters through the issues they face, and triumph whenever they seem to be back in control.
While we are primarily captivated by the story of these two fascinating women, the film also presents us with two interesting stories of how the men in their lives cope with rejection. Many queer women have to confront negative male attention, from street harassment to any possible past lovers, and the film addresses this theme of attempting to live alongside a woman in a world so geared towards being with men.
There's been much fawning over the film's visuals, and I can't say I disagree- the entire film is crammed with beautiful shots and luscious set peices, and Sandy Powell's costume designs are a stand out quality-I could talk for days about everything I loved about the movie's aesthetics. Lead actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara step into 1950s clothing perfectly, completely believable and flawless in period costume. Blanchette and Mara have received deservedly wonderful acclaim for their work in Carol, and it's hard not to swoon for their chemistry. The attention to detail in their body language, characersitsics and diaolgue make for that perfectly subtle yet perfectly powerful combination. Even in its final scene, an event that could have been drawn out and exaggerated as they are in so many tales of romance, the downplayed gentleness undoubtedly wins the audience over.
While I adored the performances both actors gave, the argument could be made that these roles should have been given to queer actors. While there have been rumours regarding Blanchette's sexuality, the only 'Out' perfomers in Carol have considerably smaller roles. I was delighted to see Sarah Paulson wonderfully depict Carol's best friend and former lover Abby-I was previously besotted with Paulson in her work in American Horror Story (especially as the lead role in second series Asylum) and her smaller, yet brilliant part in The Notorious Betty Page. We see Abby as Carol's confidant and trusted friend- there's a point to be made about Abby and Carol's close friendship despite the end of their romantic associations, and how Carol wants to keep that part of her history close. This isn't a depiction of a jealous and bitter ex- this film covers loyal and loving female friendships as well as intimiacies. Another queer actor featured in this film is Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, though her part was severely shortened and we barely see her appear at all, despite the intriguing nature of her appearance. If you are interested in these roles, I highly recommend reading the original novel as there's far more character insight within the pages than there are on screen.
Another concern of mine is the complete whiteness of the movie. While I love to see a film with a majority female cast, a female writer (Phyllis Nagy did an incredible job fighting to get the film made) and the visibility of queer characters in mainstream cinema, this film still contributes to the racial inequalities of Hollywood. This film features no none-white actors and by now, film makers should really be considering making positive changes. Representation and casting is a huge part of Hollywood, and they have the control to inforce a more fair casting process within cinema. We've recently seen the backlash to the appalling Oscar nominations, leading to a widespread boycott and leading The Academy to make changes to its process by creating a more diverse board of Governors, but things need to drastically improve, and the sooner the better.
A positive to take away from Carol is its happy ending (I won't go into too much detail for those who haven't seen it yet). Queer audiences are used to investment and infatuation with an on-screen couple before the relationship is destroyed by either an untimely death or the passing of a sexual 'phase'. Carol's positive ending feels triumphant and groundbreaking, though it's a pretty undemanding request for a queer relationship to stay in tact, and so very rarely the case. I hold high hopes for future lesbian cinema- Carol has proved that queer stories don't have to be tragic to be successful, rejecting the romanticised grief and loss in so many titles.
Carol has currently finished its run at most mainstream cinemas, however the original novel is incredibly accessible, and the DVD is available to pre-order, ahead of its release in March.
Did you see Carol? I'd love to hear your thoughts!