Posted December 25, 2015 by Daniel Hodgson in
Carol is a good and loving mother. But in 1950’s America, that doesn’t matter. She loves someone whom she’s not supposed to, and that is enough reason for the state to take her child away from her. And yet that is not what Carol is really about.
Carol meets Therese at a department store. Therese, a sales clerk, is younger and pretty. They lock eyes across the room. The attraction is instant and mutual, like with any other couple. Carol is about a romance not between two women, but between two people, how the physical attraction between sparks an extramarital affair.
Carol is portrayed by Cate Blanchett, who delivers hands-down one of the finest performances of the year. Her performances is stylized, like something out of the 50’s melodramas the movie emulates, in how she angles her head just so, knowing that the camera is gazing at her, unafraid. Carol is classy and confident, almost always adorned in bold red clothing.
Rooney Mara portrays Therese. She is unassertive, unsure of herself, and doesn’t know who she is or what she wants in life. Like Carol, she is in a relationship with a man, Richard (Jake Lacy) that she doesn’t want to be in. Unlike Carol, she is not interesting as a character.
That is not a slight upon Mara’s performance. Therese doesn’t talk much, yet she speaks volumes with her eyes. She looks at Carol, her eyes drawn to her lips, her hands. The magnetism between them feels real, and the love scene between them is passionate, charged with sensuality. But beyond the bedroom, Therese is a blank slate, waiting for life to carve itself upon her, something she freely admits. And so it does.
Prior to meeting Therese, Carol’s marriage is its last throes. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) clings desperately to their chances, despite her previous infidelity with another woman, Abby (Sarah Paulson), her daughter’s godmother. Ultimately, the custody of Carol’s daughter is what’s at stake in the film, what the characters are fighting about, yet she receives scant screen time, and their relationship as mother and daughter is scarcely explored. The problem with Carol, then, is that is not about what it’s about.
The film is directed by Todd Haynes, who also helmed 2002’s Far from Heaven, which was similarly a modern version of a social problems movie, which likewise dealt with themes of homosexuality and infidelity that a 1950’s film would not have dealt with nearly as explicitly as Carol does. What a melodrama must do, though, is move us deeply through its characters. We must sympathize with them, empathize with them. But we barely come to know Carol’s daughter Rindy (portrayed by KK and Sadie Heim), and Therese barely knows herself.
Carol has its social conscience in the right place, and that goes some distance with me, and the performances are outstanding as well; the film has merit in those respects. But a great romance is not defined by two characters who fall in love, but by our falling in love with them. They must reveal themselves to us so that we may them almost as deeply as they know themselves. Carol is about physical intimacy, but the characters fail to reveal themselves to us, preventing us to know them as deeply as they know themselves.