Tuesday, December 8, 2015

CAROL Is An Elegant Character Study With Two Knockout Lead Performances

 CAROL Review:

- Todd Haynes' CAROL is an interesting study in duality. A look at a budding, forbidden romance between two woman in 1950's Manhattan, the film features Cate Blanchett as the titular character and Rooney Mara as the object of her affections. Blanchett plays Carol as a bold, brash woman who knows what she wants - and she plays her with a theatricality that is very much vintage Cate Blanchett. Mara plays Therese - a mousy, shy would-be photographer. Hers is the less showy performance, but to me it's the one that makes the strongest impression. Mara as Therese speaks volumes with a glance. And it's Mara who in many ways is the MVP of this film.

What I really liked about Haynes' film is the vibe. He paints a vivid picture of 1950's New York, crafting a film that sparkles with a dreamlike haze. The imagery, the music, the performances - they coalesce to pull you into this world. It's a world of possibility, but also of strict and unbreakable social convention. Therese is a shop-girl, a lost soul in the city who has a job and a boyfriend and an apartment, but who seems propelled forward merely by necessity. What she really loves is photography - but she's too afraid of taking photos of people ... too intrusive. But what she's really missing is real human connection, and a push to make her realize who she is and what, really, she's after. Enter Carol - who storms into Therese's life like a movie-star come to life. Carol is also living something of a lie - she's married, has a daughter - she keeps up appearances. But some time ago, she began to explore her sexuality and, though she has to keep it a secret, she herself is fully aware of who and what she is. Now, she only has to show Therese who *she* is. The two meet by chance - Carol runs into Therese while shopping, and the two have a quick exchange that leads to lunch, which leads to frequent visits and friendship, which then leads to something deeper. And suddenly, Therese is caught up in something - with this almost alien, high-society woman - that she can barely explain.

The relationship between the two women is the centerpiece of the film, and both lead actresses really do great work here. Blanchett is so consistently good that we tend to take her for granted, but she is fantastic here - portraying Carol as a woman with a lot of dignity, who is nonetheless forced to suffer the great indignity of being marginalized and forced to live a falsehood. Still, I wondered if perhaps Blanchett was slightly overplaying the character at times. Her theatricality occasionally seems at odds with the film's more nuanced tone - especially in comparison to Mara's much more subdued performance. Mara's quieter turn as Therese fits the character, but it also seems to be a better fit for the movie as a whole. But man, Mara really impresses here. She proved that she had that it-factor in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but she shows her range here by fully stepping into the role of Therese - again, conveying so much in her eyes and body language and tone. It's an absolutely stunning performance, even in its quietest moments.

In many ways, this is Mara's movie, because the film starts with Carol already attuned to who she is. The external journey here is Carol's - she is forced to leave her frustrated husband (an excellent Kyle Chandler) and decides to drive across the country to escape from him and his ever-present lawyers and investigators. But the internal journey that drives the narrative is Therese's - it is she who has to find herself, and discover who she, is and whether she's willing to act on her growing feelings for Carol.

There are some moments of high-tension: Carol's knock-down, drag-out fights with her husband, and her devastation over the idea of losing her daughter in their custody battle ... But mostly, CAROL is a film about small moments that nonetheless are pivotal moments. The film's ending is emblematic of that. Without spoiling anything, Haynes makes a simple decision by Therese the film's climax - a small moment that still serves as a game-changing turning point in the characters' relationship.

As good as the film is, I don't know that it ever reaches quite the emotional highs that it should. It's odd, the film's most powerful journeys are the characters' journeys of self-discovery. But the actual relationship between the two lead women is never quite believable as the star-crossed romance that the film perhaps wants it to be. For one thing, it all feels very rushed. For another, the characters are so different from one another, and the spark between them doesn't feel sustainable. And finally, Blanchett and Mara seem to be acting in two different movies at times, which doesn't help. It's strange, because both are excellent in their own way, but both seem to be interpreting the tone of the film differently.

But CAROL still works because Haynes manages to control the mood and tone of the movie via his evocative direction and rich cinematography. What could have been heavy-handed Oscar bait instead feels like something different and more textured. CAROL is bold filmmaking and captivating cinema.

My Grade: B+

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