When I look at photographs and images from the ’50s, much of it brings a sense of utter joy and delight. A tribute to an era that was built on the positive notions of those that survived the past World War, looking to the future at their baby boomer offspring and chrome automobiles. But somewhere, beneath the cracks, we begin to realize that those pictures do not tell the complete story–for this was a time of important works of art, ones that spoke of a more deeper decade than we could ever imagine. One such novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, serves as the inspiration for Todd Hayne’s latest project, Carol, a movie that explores the more interesting aspects of that mysterious time.
In the film we meet Therese (Rooney Mara), a mousy young Manhattan girl struggling to get through the holidays at her department store job, where she works in the toy section. One day, a majestic beauty named Carol (Cate Blanchett) enters Therese’s life, and things are never quite the same for the two women–with love, Carol’s husband, and other obstacles facing them at every turn.
If you couldn’t guess from the plot description above, Carol deals with a subject matter that, at the time of the novel’s release, was pretty taboo. But in 2015, lesbian romances are nothing new, and director Todd Haynes has already proven his skills in handling period dramas (Far From Heaven being the obvious example). So what exactly can Carol add to the history of LGBTQ+ cinema that other films haven’t already? There’s a lot, trust me.
In many ways, Carol is the cinematic adaptation of your favorite vintage postcard. The smiles of the overly happy individuals and the pastel color palette indicate an overall optimistic nature, but one that took more effort and care than the cheap Staples-made imitation. From the stunning cinematography by Edward Lachman, a swelling score by Carter Burwell, and the drop dead gorgeous costume design by Sandy Powell, the hard work of everyone involved clearly shows.
Behind the scenes, what is easily the most impressive aspect of Carol is its screenplay, written by Phyllis Nagy. In a year where we’ve had some very cleverly written lines of dialogue (from Mad Max: Fury Road to Spotlight), there’s something about the poetic nature of Nagy’s writing that sticks out among the competition. Particularly, a line spoken by Carol herself, in which she talks to her husband about the relationship between them and their daughter, secured a very special place in this critic’s heart, where memorable movie quotes live on forever.
But what stands out the most, as you can probably guess from its early Oscar buzz, are the performances. It is of course no surprise that Cate Blanchett is brilliant here, in what many have argued could be the best performance of her entire career (even better than her Oscar winning role in Blue Jasmine, if you can believe it). She portrays both a fantasy–the 1950s fur coat wearing goddess of legend–and an honestly flawed individual, who hides her scars under her perfectly fitted suits and red lipstick, without batting a lash.
Yet more so than Blanchett, Mara is to the true star here. Like Carol herself says of Therese, “You’ve truly blossomed,” which as an actress, Rooney definitely has. She brings an element of control to a role that in other hands could have come off over the top. This role showcases both the outgoing side of our lead heroine and her introverted tendencies. When award season is upon us, it’ll be a very Sophie’s Choice-like scenario for which of these ladies should take home a nomination, let alone the gold. But in all honesty, it’s Mara’s time to claim a prize that is rightfully hers.
Bringing on a feminine energy that has been surely missed from the past few award seasons, Carol is a whimsical, real world fairy tale, that offers a sense of hope and humility to an otherwise overabundant Award Movie season. And though it has what many would consider to be “Oscar bait,” it stands among its competitors for the simple fact that it doesn’t have any gimmicks up its sleeve, and instead, it’s a piece of romance that should be respected and admired for years to come.
Carol is currently in limited release and will continue to expand throughout the year into Awards season.