There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” that could serve as a master class on film acting. Cate Blanchett, as the title character, and Sarah Paulson as Abby, her best friend and former lover, are sitting in a booth at a bar. They’re talking as friends do when they catch up, in this case discussing Carol’s infatuation with the younger Therese and her problems with her estranged husband Harge, and Abby’s crush on a Rita Hayworth-type redhead. But what’s so arresting about their conversation is not what they say, it’s how they relate to each other. With minimal effort, Blanchett and Paulson manage to convey the depth and length of their friendship and not just the love but the regard each has for the other. After the movie’s exceptionally slow beginning, this scene is so welcoming it’s ridiculous. It jumps right off the screen.
Too bad the rest of “Carol” isn’t as consistently engaging or as expertly done.
Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt,” “Carol,” with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, is centered on the relationship of a soon-to-be-divorced woman (Blanchett) and the younger Therese (Rooney Mara), a budding photographer working in a department store to pay the bills. Set in 1952, it’s definitely “the love that dare not speak its name” territory. The crowded room across which the ladies first lock eyes is the toy department during Christmas shopping season. Therese sells Carol an expensive train set as a present for the latter’s four year-old daughter, Carol (accidentally?) leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her, Carol invites her to lunch and….we’re off.
But not really, because this is the slowest film I’ve seen in a very long time. As in “Far From Heaven,” his earlier foray into the 1950’s, director Todd Haynes is obsessed with details of setting, props and decor. Unfortunately they’re not substitutes for pacing and story details (Though I will say I loved Carol’s tank of a car—I knew immediately it was a Packard—and recognized its ’50’s New Jersey license plate as the type my family’s Chevy once sported).
While I don’t think the film is the masterpiece some critics claim it to be, the framing of the story is beautifully realized. The movie begins as we follow a man from a train station to the dining room of a nearby hotel; he turns out to be a friend of Therese, who’s having tea with Carol. He invites her to a party and they depart; the film flashes back to the day Carol and Therese met and the story is then told chronologically until we’re once again at the hotel. Only this time the perspective is entirely different—we’re witness to Carol and Therese’s conversation and the nature of what’s at stake between them. Your realization that we’re back to where we were at the beginning is a mild shock, but an oddly enjoyable one.
What “Carol” does have going for it is some great acting. This is Rooney Mara’s film, hands down; it would not surprise me in the least if she takes the Oscar as Best Actress. The camera just loves her, and rightly so—there’s more than a suggestion of the young Audrey Hepburn and, if you know your ’50’s movies, Maggie McNamara (“Three Coins in the Fountain” is one of my guilty pleasures). Ms. Mara shows us there’s more to this young woman than what’s visible at first glance. She has enough strength to withstand her fiancé’s constant push that they marry and sail for France; she gives us the sense that she’s beginning to know what she wants out of life. Whatever Therese lacks she certainly acquires along the way. Her growth into a woman with some steel is readily apparent by the end of the film—that meeting of Therese and Carol over tea, post-breakup, is a wonderfully nuanced scene of emotional push/pull. It’s at that point you realize that these two could really be a worthy match for each other.
Maybe it’s the roles she’s been playing lately, but Cate Blanchett seems to be on the verge of becoming a Grand Lady, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She’s more than a bit predatory at the beginning of “Carol,” and she’s not flattered by the ’50’s makeup which tended to make a woman look older than her years back in the day. While the character has a great many issues, there seems to be an awful lot of heavy lifting on Ms. Blanchett’s part, especially involving Carol’s relationship with her soon-to-be ex, Harge (Kyle Chandler is a wonderful actor, but he can’t seem to escape the stereotype of WASP-who-drinks here). Despite her love for Therese (and yes, the bedroom scene is hot), I really didn’t like the character all that much until she grew a backbone in the confrontation at the lawyer’s office. When she dictates her own custody terms as a “take it or leave it,” that’s when “Carol” finally blooms.
The ending is a wonderful pay-off. It reminds me a great deal of the scene in “Howards End” when Emma Thompson, after asking Anthony Hopkins for some time to consider his surprise marriage proposal, runs back up the stairs to kiss him. When I saw it at the local multiplex, the woman sitting behind me semi-whined “But we don’t know what she’ll answer.” To which her husband drily replied “She already did.”
At the end of “Carol,” Therese certainly does.