Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CAROL (2015)

Written by Phyllis Nagy

Directed by Todd Haynes

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  November 23, 2015  6:00 PM

With "Carol", the elegant and haunting love story by Todd Haynes, it proves without question that Cate Blanchett is a true screen goddess in the tradition of Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Now, the two-time Oscar winner has always mesmerized with indelible performances starting with the role that first brought her notice as the future queen of England in "Elizabeth", then taking on the iconic actress, Katharine Hepburn in the Howard Hughes bio-pic, "The Aviator" to the first time she worked with Mr. Haynes in "I'm Not There" playing, of all people, Bob Dylan and her most recent award-wining turn as a wealthy socialite who falls on hard times in Woody Allen's comedy, "Blue Jasmine". But here Blanchett unleashes an astonishing intensity that has rarely been captured on film. It's all very subtle, using the magnetic power of her femininity, this upper middle-class '50's New Jersey housewife is able to soothe, entice and command with just the simple use of her liquid blue eyes, gentle yet authoritative voice and small, graceful gestures. We watch her attempting to remain the glamorous society wife and mother while struggling to find and hold on to her authentic self. This is one of Blanchett's most powerful performances and you are truly unable to take your eyes off of her for one moment.

The film is based on "The Price of Salt", a novel by Patricia Highsmith of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Strangers on a Train" fame. It was first published under a pseudonym in 1952 with the true author not revealing herself until almost twenty-five years later. Highsmith latered detailed that the book was inspired by a chic shopper she encountered while working in the toy department at Bloomingdale's during the holidays as a young woman. The delicate script by Phyllis Nagy effectively delivers the mood, tension and emotional depth of Highsmith's personal story.

Carol Aird (Blanchett) has separated from her loving and devoted husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). He wants to save their marriage however, after a brief affair with Abby (Sarah Paulson), who remains a close friend and confidant, Carol's true desire has been awakened. Because of their young daughter, Rindy, she has to be discreet and handle Harge delicately in order not to risk losing custody during divorce proceedings.

One fateful day, while shopping for a Christmas gift for Rindy, would irrevocably alter Carol's life. She locks eyes on to Therese (Rooney Mara), a slight but pretty salesgirl, wearing a Santa hat. There is a intense charge that courses between them as they chat, each trying hard to downplay this feeling. Carol had sought a traditional doll but instead is inspired by Therese to get her daughter a train set. After completing the purchase and giving her address to deliver the gift, Carol, perhaps intentionally, leaves behind her gloves.

Therese feels an attraction towards this woman yet unsure of what it means. She is causally dating Richard (Jake Lacy), an unremarkable nice guy. While he's ready to become more serious, she's still unsure. Therese, feeling compelled to see her again, returns the gloves to Carol which leads to an invitation to lunch. It doesn't take long for the women to develop a close friendship which Harge is not happy about. While able to overlook Carol's previous liaison but with Therese now tight by her side, he painfully realizes his wife will never return to him.

At the last minute, Harge demands that Rindy spend Christmas with him and his parents in Florida. He extends a hopeful invitation to his very upset wife but declines to join them. Not wanting to be alone in an empty house over the holidays, Carol invites her new best friend to join her on a road trip to Chicago. Therese eagerly accepts and the two begin their journey exploring the heartland before their relationship moves beyond friendship.

Ms Mara hasn't had a film role nearly as dynamic since her impressive Oscar-nominated turn as Lisbeth Salander in the English-language version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". But "Carol" finally gives her the opportunity to shine once again. While not nearly as vivid as Blanchett's, Mara's performance is quite a marvel. We see Therese blossom from a timid, uncertain young girl in to a self-assured, passionate woman. While looking more like mother and daughter and behaving, at times, like teacher and student, these actresses make us understand how these mismatched women would fall deeply for each other. Despite what society of the time insisted, they desperately want to prove that their love is not a crime nor mental illness.

It's been almost ten years since "I'm Not There" that Mr. Haynes released a feature. In between, there was a HBO mini-series of "Mildred Pierce", an ambitious but underwhelming remake of the Joan Crawford weepie. "Carol" finds the director back in comfortable territory. Haynes has focused on provocative themes and challenged convention throughout his career beginning with his first feature, "Poison", one of the early films that helped kick off the New Queer Cinema movement back in the early '90's. This film plays very much like a companion piece to his 2002 melodrama, "Far From Heaven" which starred Julianne Moore as a '50's housewife who begins a seriously taboo affair with her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) after discovering her husband (Dennis Quaid) is secretly gay.

The director has put the emphasis here less on words and more on unspoken desire and longing to great effect. The sensational camerawork of Edward Lachman (who shot the film in Super 16mm), gorgeous costumes by three-time Oscar winner, Sandy Powell and exquisite production design of Judy Becker help give "Carol" a sensuous, dream-like quality with the use of rich, saturated colors and fine attention to period details.

Though we still have some more work to do, "Carol" reminds us how far we have come when prejudice, oppression and intolerance were the rules of the day. This beautiful film is a memorable exploration in to the difficulties and challenges of unconventional love in an illiberal era and finding the strength and courage to see it through. It is a rewarding experience that is moving, heartbreaking and utterly unforgettable.