The new film Carol deals with repressed desire in a repressive age. Emotional and sexual expression, especially in regards to same sex relationships, wasn’t portrayed in an overt manner. It largely remained unspoken and yet smouldering just under the surface. In terms of the cinematic depictions of homosexuality, it was a time when placing a tentative hand on someone’s shoulder or indulging in a lingering glance was steeped in meaning. Set in the early 1950s, Carol explores the unlikely relationship that develops between a soon-to-be-divorced upper class woman and a shy, demure department store clerk. Defining the movie simply in terms of being a lesbian love story, however, is severely limiting and ignores the overall richness and depth of this well-crafted drama.
Carol features some prestigious players both in front of and behind the camera. The drama was written by Phyllis Nagy and adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt”. The movie was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes whose previous credits include Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002), and I’m Not There (2007). The cast is led by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who starred in 2011’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Supporting cast members include Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) and Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights).
Carol depicts a time in America before the 60s free love movement, the Stonewall riots, and the rise of feminism. It takes place during an era when “men were men,” women were defined by their roles as wives and mothers, and homosexuality was considered not only as aberrant and immoral behaviour but it was also classified as a mental illness. An important element in Carol is its depiction of gender roles in society. Most of the male characters in the film are portrayed as being loud, demanding, and possessive while the women appear to be quiet and gentile.
Carol includes several references to other lesbian themed movies, most notably Desert Hearts; a classic of the genre. Donna Deitch’s 1985 film begins with a woman travelling to Reno, Nevada to get a divorce. Likewise, when viewers are introduced to Carol she’s in the midst of a nasty divorce. In Desert Hearts the main character arrives in town aboard a train whereas ironically in Carol the two main characters initially encounter one another while discussing a toy train set in a department store. The dynamic of an older woman/younger woman is also a central focus to both Desert Hearts and Carol. Mara’s character (Therese) is quite a bit younger than Carol with significantly less life experience. Their age difference serves to further complicate an already complicated and taboo relationship.
In terms of the look of the film, the director uses all of the cinematic elements available to him to transport viewers back in time. Carol was shot on Super 16mm film in order to make it look like the kind of film stock used in the 1950s. The acting style, especially in regards to Blanchett, also seems to have come straight out of a period melodrama. Both lead actresses deliver strong nuanced performances as two women struggling with issues related to identity, social expectations, and “the love that dare not speak its name.” Carol is steeped in sexual tension and the couple’s relationship is allowed to evolve organically rather than seeming forced or a mere plot point.
Carol serves as a rare example of a movie in which all the elements come together and fall perfectly into place. Not only is the story deeply emotional and engaging but Haynes also succeeds at casting a spell over audiences with his creative use of soft focus, muted hues, atmospheric music, and dreamlike sequences in which the past and present appear to merge and take on an almost magical feel. Carol is a masterful film and ranks as one of the best releases of 2015.
Carol is now playing in theatres.