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Carol movie review

In a nutshell: Carol is reminiscent of the great romantic movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood – and up with the best of them.

Carol features: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Phyllis Nagy (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (novel)

Australian release date: Thu 14 Jan

Reviewer: rolanstein

The Patricia Highsmith novel on which Carol is based was rejected by the publisher and re-packaged in 1953 as soft-porn pulp, emblazoned with the catchline “the novel of a love society forbids.” Laughable now, as is the prospect of world-weary 21st century audiences and critics swooning over a grand passion romance made today that is played straight and unashamedly reminiscent of the great love stories of Hollywood’s Golden Age – but swooning they are. Which leads me to a key point. While Carol is devoid of the sort of hedging irony that is de rigeur in the modern love story, there is an overarching irony that cannot go unremarked: the reason it works so well – or at all – is precisely that the lovers at the centre of the story are female, and their love “forbidden.”

A meticulously designed period piece set in the 50s that convincingly evokes the look and feel of the era (or more precisely, of romantic movies of the time and earlier), this is the story of the developing relationship between two women, elegant mid-40s sophisticate Carol (Cate Blanchett), whose assured appearance belies her private turmoil as her separation from her husband turns vicious, and Therese (Rooney Mara), an uncertain but striking young woman with photographer aspirations. After an encounter in the New York department store where Therese works, Carol issues an invitation to meet up, which the younger woman accepts.

Both see something in the other that they need, both are at crossroads in their lives, each finds the other alluring. Their physical attraction becomes apparent as they become better acquainted, exquisitely expressed in the unspoken coded language of their eyes and manner. The long-sustained moments in which they sit across a cafe table from each other transfixed would not be tolerated without guffaws or derision by today’s viewers if the characters were male and female, but here these scenes are entirely credible.

Blanchett and Mara are superb in the management of their roles, and never more so than in the unspeaking interludes. I am not a Blanchett knocker, but neither am I always convinced by her performances, and I do confess to being among those who consider her overrated. Not here. This film, to my mind, marks the high point, a stratospheric one, of her career thus far – and Mara is every bit her equal. They are spellbinding in their interactions as their relationship builds to a point of no return. The lovemaking scene when it inevitably arrives is steaming hot, yet most beautiful in its presentation, and about as far from porn as it gets. Highly charged erotic love, sublimely rendered as on-screen art. That’s rare. And because of the forbidden fruit element, it represents a leap in trust and courage of expression that carries more weight than it would with heterosexual characters.

As Carol’s divorce looms, her husband and his lawyer resort to dirty tactics, turning her lesbian relationship against her as a court weapon, with her child as the stakes in a winner-take-all war. Torn between her child and her lover, she faces the torture of a decision that will change all their lives.

It’s a situation ripe for exploitation in the cause of any number of socio-political agendas, but the filmmakers have judiciously avoided sermonising or finger-pointing, prioritising the drama and its complex and marvellously developed female lead characters over all else. The results speak most articulately for themselves.

This is an emotionally overwhelming film, superbly crafted and performed, and one viewing does not do it justice. There are very few films that draw such declarations from me.

Up with the great love stories of cinema of any era. If you’ve got a romantic bone in your body, don’t even think of missing this.

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3 thoughts on “Carol movie review”

  1. Great review rolan of the best film I’ve seen in many years. I too thought Blanchett was very overrated until I saw Blue Jasmine – and what she does in this, wow I am a convert and think she should perhaps have her own award category. Todd Haynes’ films are uniformly great, and this is his best. And this is the first Highsmith adaptation that really captures her oddball and slightly perverse fiction.

    1. Right with you, Lisa. I think this is destined to go down as a classic.

      Have to admit, I haven’t read any Highsmith, and have only dim memories of heavy-liddedly watching a couple of Todd Haynes’ flicks on TV late at night: Velvet Goldmine, which I abandoned for bed, and the Dylan one, which I didn’t much like. So, not qualified to comment on your observations re Highsmith and Haynes.

      Must say, though, I entirely agree with your Facebook comments on the injustice of Haynes not getting a Best Director nomination for this year’s Oscars. Ludicrous. He should have his name already on the little gold man. Ditto Best Pic for Carol. Unless her past Oscars go against her, Blanchett really should take out Best Actress. Then again, there is some weird thinking behind those awards. I’ve taken them with a grain of salt since Slumdog Millonaire.


      1. Funny, I just watched the Dylan one and loved it – haven’t seen Velvet Goldmine. I think Haynes is at his best when referencing classic ‘women’s pictures’, like in Far From Heaven and his miniseries of Mildred Pierce.
        I predict Oscar snubs all round, ho hum!

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