Carol (15)

Directed by Todd Haynes
Released on 27th November 2015
Showing at Picturehouse, Liverpool

Reviewed by Nick Daly

Young and disenchanted department store clerk Therese Belivet catches eyes with older, married and impossibly sophisticated Carol in 1950’s New York, propelling them to embark on the most passionate love affair of both their lives. Allegedly.

The word ‘allegedly’ is used so bitingly because director Todd Haynes’ means of expressing this plot seems to be exclusively through prolonged, fixated gazes. It’s a notion that compels at the film’s beginning, when an exquisitely executed glance through the crowds of a department store is a satisfying catalyst to a promising love story, but it’s when the progressing narrative demands further developments that its sparse dialogue and continuing gazes within restaurants and moving vehicles is simply incapable of sustaining it.

Furthermore, for a film based and marketed entirely on the concept of love, there’s minimal evidence to suggest Therese and Carol actually like each other. Therese observes Carol in a manner of rather detached infatuation while Therese appears little more than a distraction for Carol and her crumbling life of custody battles and failed marriages, with any brief scenes of them enjoying one another orchestrated so meticulously as to appear like some sort of Marks & Spencer advert.

Because of this, interspersed scenes of impassioned love declaration between the two are cast with a shadow of falsehood. “I think I’m falling for you,” Carol declares on a mid-city rooftop mere seconds before snow miraculously falls from the sky. It’s a particularly melodramatic moment that jars against the film’s otherwise persistent subtleness, accompanied by a swelling score; a mesmerizing creation infused with a melancholic and foreboding ambience that the film ultimately fails to measure up to. It’s a beautifully composed scene but in a purely visual sense, and it’s suitably emblematic of the film itself as it continually proves to be far too attentive to mood and style while neglecting to construct an involving narrative in the process.

It’s a fortunate instance, then, that these intense gazes belong to the most thrilling actresses of their respected generations, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Mara’s plain features encapsulate her character’s listless shopkeeper demeanor, but it’s her naturally alluring presence as an actress and this satisfying contradiction that supplies a compelling edge to her role as Therese Belivet. Her contemporary features most notable for portraying modern literary icon Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) threaten to clash with the period backdrop, but intriguingly she often harmonizes with it to conjure a look of past icons such as Jean Simmons. As if reinforcing her suitability to the role, Carol remarks of Therese’s otherworldly appearance with the film’s most memorable line, “such a strange girl, flung out of space.” Interestingly, these rather distinctive facets could just as easily be said for Therese’s prior casting, Mia Wasikowska.

Similarly, it’s clear how any person could be enamored by Carol simply due to the befitting casting of Cate Blanchett, with her hypnotic eyes burning through the screen to stare into your own. With the buzz of Oscar contention swarming her once again, however, it’s a natural tendency to recall her recent Oscar victory for the titular character of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), a performance of such extraordinary vigor that her role as Carol seems almost sedated in comparison. Furthermore, amidst the film’s aforementioned thinness of development and heavy preoccupation with image, Carol is essentially a walking, extravagantly dressed, 1950’s-themed mannequin, verging into a parody of the era itself in the process. Because of this, her scatter of dramatic scenes, mostly concerning an uninspired subplot involving a child with a screen time of approximately a minute, while typically impressive, are drained of their potential power.

Inevitably, Blanchett’s co-star suffers a similar consequence. Mara’s aforestated seductive attributes are let down by the constraints of the script, as they’re ultimately left unutilized and Therese’s initial alluringly reserved presence eventually proves to be a subtlety that verges into dullness. Blanchett and Mara can speak and abundance of words a slight expression, but their fine acting deserves an equally rich narrative to be effectively substantial and not leave the viewer straining for meaning within their mournful gazes only to be left feeling hallow.

Indeed, there’s some joy to be found in Carol. There’s a certain thrill to watching Carol and Therese’s trip together over the holiday period, with the traditionalism of the snow-strewn 1950’s setting intertwined with their forbidden liaisons creating a kind of distorted, alternate Christmas story. Furthermore, a film noir-esque discovery of a gun in a motel suitcase offers a subtle but much desired dramatic edge, even if it ultimately fizzles into the kind of bland melodrama the film is so accustomed to. Predominately, though, Carol plays like a film adaptation of a 1950’s gift shop postcard; artistic, polite, inoffensive and, like a piece of card itself, ultimately depthless and surface-level.

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