Film Review: Carol (M) (UK/USA, 2015)

Carol may look like a film set in the 1950’s but it feels far more modern than its exterior appears. A slow burning love story that refuses to end on a tragic note, performed by two exceptional leads that doesn’t require any loud professions about sexuality or equality or feminism to make its point.

We first meet Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) living a fairly simplistic and mundane life working as a shop assistant in a New York department store selling toys but she aspires to be a photographer. She has a sort-of boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) who is smitten with her but her feelings toward him are more platonic. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) a wealthy socialite no longer loves her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) but she endures it for the sake of their young daughter. A chance encounter and an almost impromptu road trip between Therese and Carol will irreversibly change both of their lives. From the outset these two women are drawn together like magnets. Therese seems in awe of Carol and her wealthy life and gorgeous clothes. Carol is intrigued by the younger Therese who is free spirited and unburdened by commitment or adult responsibilities. As their relationship begins to blossom we begin to learn more about these two very strong and independent women.

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) with screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs Harris) have done exceptional work with this film and despite it being set in the stuffy conformist Eisenhower era of 50’s America, you can still see and feel some similarities to the landscape of today. To add to this, cinematographer Ed Lachman (Far From Heaven, Erin Brockovich) brings us these richly textured viewpoints predominantly from Therese, like as she stares out a rain spattered taxi window, or scanning the store floor and almost double-taking as her eyes land on Carol. At times we are made to feel like Therese looking out on her world, at others we are merely bystanders watching on from the sidelines. This both serves to make us feel the emotional closeness as well as try to remain objective about our characters. The colour pastels used in the film include a lot of beige or nude skin tones and the muted hues of the blue sky or green in the trees seem to reflect the struggle of our two characters, desperate to brighten their world but trapped and unable to break free from the mundane.

It would be easy to walk into this film and say that this is Cate Blanchett’s but once you walk out you will be assured that this is Rooney Mara’s opportunity to shine just as bright. Blanchett of course is a goddess, and for the most part commands herself with precision. Whilst Mara seems to channel an Audrey Hepburn like charm and sensibility, young, sometimes guarded but never foolish. Both of them emit a steeliness and self-reliance in differing ways and Nagy’s script allows both these actors to never be apologetic for who they are. And as with any good romance there is also heartbreak and challenges. Carol’s husband Harge threatens to take sole custody of their child due to her affairs with other women (including her best friend since childhood Abby, played with a hint of snark by Sarah Paulson) which sets in motion the downhill turn of Carol’s and Therese’s relationship. The emotional loss is a bitter sting after the sweet highs of their road trip escapade.

Carol is a beautifully paced slow burning film that allows us to not only explore these characters but also leave a little room for mystery. It is visually sumptuous in design but never feels over the top or extreme. But where this film excels is with its two exceptional leading ladies who give us a love affair that rivals anything Nicholas Sparks-based romances ever gave us.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 118 minutes

Carol is screening nationally in Australian cinemas from 14 January 2016 through Transmission Films