Movie Review - Carol

This is an adaptation of the second novel by Patricia Highsmith. Except, it's very much different from previous adaptations. Previous adaptations have included Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Both involved murder and an undercurrent of homo-eroticism. Both were thrillers, or at least thrillers in a sense. This film isn't a thriller in the slightest. At one point, it feels as if it might turn into one, but it ultimately doesn't. It does have homo-eroticism but not as an undercurrent. It's more on the surface. It's more palpable. In fact, the whole thrust in this film is its same-sex attraction.

On a rudimentary level, this movie is essentially a female version of Brokeback Mountain. Instead of it being two guys who fall in love but who can't be together, it's two women who fall in love. Set in the 1950's, a couple of decades before the events in Brokeback Mountain, society is heavily against same-sex relations. Society is also highly patriarchal. Men can't be openly gay, but they have some power that women don't.

Two-time, Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett (The Aviator and Blue Jasmine) stars as Carol, a gorgeous, intelligent, blonde socialite who is married with a daughter. Her husband Harge, played by Emmy-winner Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights and Bloodline), knows that she has a preference for women. However, he uses the custody of her daughter as a way of keeping her in line. Despite that, she remains drawn to women and one in particular.

Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Side Effects) co-stars as Therese, the one in particular to whom Carol is drawn. She's less a woman and more a girl. At times, her relationship with Carol feels like that of Benjamin Braddock and Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967). Yet, Carol isn't as aggressive as Mrs. Robinson, but Therese is experiencing a similar kind of awakening as Benjamin Braddock.

To be more accurate, the experience is probably more similar to the one depicted in Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002) with Julianne Moore's character. Far From Heaven is set in the same time period and it also deals with homosexual themes. The care and the flourish in the production design are also here as in that 2002 film. It makes sense as Haynes is the same director for both.

The first third of the narrative for this film is rather boring. It starts slowly, which arguably so did Brokeback Mountain, but that Ang Lee film immersed us in an environment that was somewhat action-oriented and removed from modern comforts. This film isn't removed from those comforts. It feels very much indulgent in those comforts. It's not that a story can't be told about somewhat wealthy or very well-off, white people living in the city or suburbia, but when Heath Ledger's character proclaims to be financially broke in Brokeback Mountain, it made his character more sympathetic and especially more empathetic.

There's just not as much empathy for Carol in all her high-fashion and privileged seating in fancy restaurants. Things change when the movie switches into a road trip for its middle section. It could have become a kind of 1950's version of Thelma & Louise, but it abandons that. Its middle section also could have embraced that thriller aspect that has been a hallmark of many Highsmith stories, but it backs away. I suppose it's good that a gay character or potential gay character doesn't turn criminal and especially murderous, but it's a wonder as to why this story needed to be told, beyond it being a story where two lesbians have a happy ending.

I just didn't get much tension, friction or drama. The narrative picks up in the latter third when the conflict between Carol and Harge becomes more intense. This conflict is established in the first third, but Carol remains a more enigmatic figure than one would want. For example, I don't get why she married Harge in the first place. There are some lesbians who aren't and who manage. Carol feels self-assured, so why did she hitch herself to Harge at all?

The acting, however, is superb. Blanchett specifically is superb. She never has a false beat. She truly is impeccable. Haynes' direction is nothing flashy, although he does play with the concept of loneliness very well. He expresses it through the way he shoots his two lead characters. How he frames them during phone conversations or through glass, which does much to isolate or separate them. It's so much so that even in a crowded room, the two of them can feel like the only ones present, and that can be powerful in itself.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.

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