Thursday, 3 December 2015

Review of Carol (2015)

Todd Hayne's "Carol" is a remarkable film, remarkable because it is sensual, sad, sorrowful subtle and supremely stirring, simultaneously emotionally complex and rich and yet telling a very simple story. Composed almost entirely of shots that take place outside of the rooms where the action is, with the viewer peering in, it is remarkable how immersive a film experience it is. A close friend remarked how it resembles a painting by Edward Hopper, and I think this is fitting; it is the principally a mood piece, that in any scene you are watching transports you to that scene. It draws you in on a profound, and not a superficial level. 

Therese (Rooney Mara), pronounced "Teh-rez", (which immediately indicates something of the wilfulness about her character), works on the toy floor of a large department store, stuck to her counter, as she puts it. After a prologue which serves as framing device, the first ten or so minutes of the film are spent observing her behaviours. She lives alone, but a man named Richard (Jake Lacy) calls on her each morning. At her workplace, she is henpecked and ordered by her boorish staff. Her mind wanders, and she often has to be called back into the task at hand by others. You immediately sense her lack of fulfilment; she needs more than this. 

One day she spots Carol (Cate Blanchett) playing with a train-set on the other side of the store; Carol approaches her, asking Therese's opinion of what is a good present for a young girl. There is a richness to their interaction in this scene, something unspoken, a harmony in between the words which technically constitute their exchange. They are at once, palpably, in tune. It is the first great scene in a film which has several. Therese recommends a train set; Carol immediately, almost without thought, buys it. It will be delivered to Carol's house in the next few days. 

Upon leaving the store, Carol leaves her gloves behind; Therese posts them to her, Carol rings the store thanking Therese and inviting her for lunch, and from there, the central love story begins to blossom.

But there are other factors, and this is no easy love story. Carol is going through a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and there's a nasty custody battle looming involving their daughter Rindy. Harge clearly is deeply, deeply in love with his wife, and whilst some might interpret his actions later on as those of a selfish, piggish man, whilst he's no saint I think everything he does is because he does care for his wife, and is incredibly hurt by her refusal to be with him. The central portion of the film is essentially a road trip, as Carol and Therese trek across America throughout Christmas and New Year, going from hotel to hotel, escaping Therese's mundane life and Carol's difficult divorce proceedings.

What makes the film great is in the composition. This is a delicate piece in theme and in how it's been made, and there are five or six individual moments which transcend the film itself and become transportative. The central love scene between the pair is the most prominent example; it is a profoundly erotic scene that works not because of lurid detail, but because of sensitive detail. The way their hair almost fuses together into one; the way they break their kissing to place their faces into one another, like they want to become one; the way they communicate to one another about what they both want from this exchange. 

It is cinematic poetry, and the film sings. Every technical aspect is perfect, and I mean perfect; Judy Becker's production design is exemplary, and every location feels in service to the theme; Edward Lachmann's creamy and dreamy cinematography conjures up a magnificently immediate sense of place; Carter Burwell's score is unobtrusive but delightfully mood-setting, rising to the occasion of each scene and placing a perfect stamp on it; Phyllis Nagy's script, working from Patricia Highsmith's novel, is an unfussy delight, with some of the richest and most understated dialogue I've heard in an American film for some time. 

The acting on all sides is magnificent, but Cate Blanchett's performance goes beyond even the highest expectations you could have of her (and will likely net her an Oscar). The control she displays in her posture, placing and inflexion is masterly; it's the kind of performance you can picture drama students studying years down the line. Her near constant sense of hurt, and longing, are within arm's reach for the audience at all times, and she walks a thin line between desperate and needy, and someone with a lot of love to give. Her courting of Therese is believable, and you can believe this pair as a couple, the kind you can't picture not being together. The way they reach out for other is a most beautiful thing, and little details, like the gifts they buy for each other, left me with an unashamed lump in my throat (and, indeed, I quietly cried through the credits).

Most thankfully of all, the film seems reticent to peddle a trite or patronising pro-LGBT line, or to make a comment about how things "back then" weren't so great, and how much better society reacts to non-hetero people. There are maybe two brief discussions of homosexuality in the film; ultimately it is about nothing more than Carol and Therese's relationship and the surrounding plot, and it is not serving a higher agenda or making a point about anything else. As a result the film feels pure, and this is what, I think, gives the film its greatness.

Ultimately, "Carol" represents a triumph of the melding of form and content; a film of the highest craftsmanship servicing a love story that runs deep and has rich multitudes. It does not proffer a cheap or an easy outcome, and understands that things involving people don't tend to really resolve themselves for the movie's sake; it relies on character motivations, and thankfully we are given two characters here who will endure, in a film that will no doubt go on to be a received and respected standard classic in so many years time. I cannot fault it, and I cannot wait to revisit it. 

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