The performances in Carol won’t make you get up screaming from the theater, but the awkwardness of it all might. Here’s why I had a few issues…
Nowadays, I rarely get to walk into a film not knowing what the subject matter is going to cover. What shocked me with Carol wasn’t that, but how lazily we got to the more intimate moments of Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese’s (Rooney Mara) relationship. While we are expected to sympathize with Carol, I can’t bring myself to do that. She is clearly in control and knows what she is doing toward Therese. Yes, she is working through a bunch of pain from her failing marriage caused by their incompatibility and her sexual orientation. That hasn’t affected her power of seduction in the slightest. She is working Therese from the very beginning and from that early moment in the department store, I was just waiting for the inevitable steaminess to follow. The chemistry in this case feels rather one sided and expected.
There’s no real spark to their relationship or driving force to bring them together. The excuse for them to come together is weaker than James Bond scoring with Strawberry Fields off of hotel stationary (Quantum of Solace). Maybe the weak dialogue during Carol and Therese’s scenes came straight from the book, but as I always say, I don’t care. Movies have to stand on their own and I treat them as if the book doesn’t exist. Every scene from the start feels like a train wreck heading to their forced romance.
The interactions that seem real: Carol consulting with her former lover Abby, confronting her husband multiple times, and doting on her young daughter. I’m never invested into the relationship that is supposed to be front and center. Let’s use another example from a recent film this year: The Danish Girl. As Einar is transitioning to Lili, I’m engaged in that journey and the deterioration of the relationship between Lili and Gerda. How about Brooklyn, which seems like a simple love torn story but has much more nuance. Eilis is torn between two lovers, but its can also just as strong with her being torn between two lives: one in New York and the other in Ireland. With Carol, I’m just waiting on the credits to roll because the setup is so predictable.
Not to mention there are background characters who are way too cool with Carol and Therese’s taboo behavior for 1952. Therese’s semi-boyfriend gets upset that she choose Carol over him, but it didn’t seem nearly angry enough. For 2016, you would think at least a few people could get over that, but not in 1952. I have a hard time believing this would be a minor issue for the time period. It makes me not like the characters, not because they don’t fit into my schema of 1952, but for not having enough diversity in the reactions. Particularly with ones that close to the main characters. The lack of discussion afterwards is what really baffles me. So, even if I believed no one raised that much ruckus about their relationship, why was nothing said when it deteriorated and they returned to their regular friends and social circles?
Those criticisms aside, Blanchett and Mara are superb even if I can’t quite latch onto them as lovers. Blanchett comes across as a very cold and calculating seductress early on, but that shell slowly starts to crack as Therese begins to explore what Carol won’t easily divulge. At times, she is a very narcissistic individual who flips between genuinely caring for Therese and wanted her regular life back. When Harge (Kyle Chandler) gets recordings of the secret relationship, we get to see this switch get flipped back into narcissistic or protective of herself. It does lead us into one of the best moments of the film where Carol relinquishes the fight over child custody with Harge . The resolution to their arc and the argument, or rather monologue that Blanchett delivers to finish it is stunning. She sends shivers down your spine multiple times through the course of this film and this is certainly one of them.
Mara is able to display a wide range of feelings, from child like curiosity to a jaded lover and finally a pursuer. This is what makes the rest of the film interesting, even if I disagree with how some of these characters react to their environment. What starts off initially clunky and uninteresting with Mara’s character becomes rather complex. She is girl who doesn’t feel at peace with the people around her. Therese silently balks at the advances thrown her way because it’s not something she desires. I would have preferred to seen this explored more verbally instead of how much it was left to interpretation. It may have given me more incentive to be vested in the her and Carol’s relationship. We can easily understand what has awoken these feelings for Carol. However we are given less information to work with in regard to Therese that could have helped knocked it out of the park.
I loved a bunch of Todd Haynes’ cinematic choices with this film: The movie serving as a flashback of their life and leading it back up to the first scene of the film. It worked very well as they use Therese’s blank stare from a cab as the transition point for the two timelines. The extensive camera work in and out the car during their long trip west should be noted as well. I could care less about sex scenes. However, since I wasn’t really buying their relationship from the beginning, I wasn’t too keen on their romantic escapades either.
While some of the illogical choices by a few characters and lack of chemistry between Blanchett and Mara really hurt this one for me, there’s still some great performances that help anchor the weaker parts down. I may come off a bit angry towards this, but it’s mainly because I hate predictable romance plots (regardless of the different pieces or combinations they may throw at me)
Carol: 7 out of 10