A timeless, forbidden, and music-cued affair of the heart.
While working the doll counter at Manhattan department store Frankenberg’s, Therese (Rooney Mara) eyes the beautiful and elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett) from across the room. The attraction is immediate, but in the 1950s, more than a few people have issues with a married mother exploring a same-sex relationship with an available and popular young woman. Consenting adults will be consenting adults, but even while nature takes its course, complications threaten their relationship with the welfare of a child hanging in the balance. Will their attraction be denied or will love triumph all?
Warning: total award bait! A lesbian love affair between two beautiful women? A period piece that denies them the same right that…okay, well, we’re still getting that sorted out 65 years later. Wait, one more: a pretentious “longing desperation” piano/violin/oboe concerto over non-dialogue moments? Yes, you worked very hard on your eight-bar theme song; thanks, we got it. All this aside? It’s good. Both actors contrast and emote the complications of being who they’re expected to be while still trying to find a way to fulfill a need that others may deplore. Unlike Brokeback Mountain, which started early with the controversial same-sex love scene to get it out of the way and concentrate on the aftermath and emotional complication of their sudden but denied relationship, Carol builds toward it, trying to make a gratuitous scene feel as artful as it can. There aren’t many surprises here as the story unfolds by the numbers, but while being expertly shot, acted, and edited, it can’t seem to shake the stigma of being an year-end award generator rather than a meaningful film.
The music; how else can it be said? The first time year hear it, it’s haunting and hopeful, the opening strains to an opera with the promise of more to come…but nothing does. Every time the dialogue stops and silent faces start emoting, the exact same music sweeps in and plays on an endless loop until it’s time to start talking again. It’s forgivable once or twice until you realize this it: the only music you’re going to get. It Follows had a similar problem, a blaring and distracting “sound” that was meant to invoke horror but made you want to cover your ears. Carol‘s theme isn’t so harsh, but the repetition feels more like they couldn’t afford any more orchestration, a budgetary decision rather than a directorial decision. Okay, enough about the music…
It’s hard to resist Cate Blanchett. As the title character, she is clearly the object of desire but also a predator in her own right. If this was a film about a well-off sophisticated married father swooping in to pluck a delicate, unaware flower and tuck her into his lapel — you know, like most other romantic Hollywood movies — you would label that man a predator, an opportunist, or worse…or forgive him because he’s rich, charming, and has a lovely accent (wink, wink; nudge nudge). Whether Therese is genuinely a love interest or merely Carol’s next conquest or distraction, it catalyzes the feelings that Rooney Mara fills her performance with, keeping step with Blanchett every step of the way. The men in the cast are barely important — Richard, the would-be suitor played by Jake Lacy; Harge, the emasculated husband played by Kyle Chandler — as the camera never strays far from the two co-leads. Sarah Paulson — who looks at home forever in the 1950s or 1960s — briefly appears as a friend to Carol and confidant to Therese.
It’s hard not to respect this film for what it is: a cross-section of rarely explored Americana in a time where relationships like this were kept quiet and the threat of exposure could be used for control. As two actors inhabiting the characters, they are indeed captivating. Other than the aforementioned music issue and lack of actual surprises in the storyline, anyone who enjoys art house flicks and unique romance will find a lot to love about Carol.
(3.0 skull recommendation out of four)