A well-dressed woman walks into a department store in search of the perfect gift for her daughter. As she scans the displays for possible items, she notices a captivating woman, a lady of such engaging expression that the shopper forgets, for a moment, why she came to the store. Suddenly the task to purchase becomes less important than the opportunity to engage. After all, how often do people get the chance to redefine their lives?
As he did with the memorable Far From Heaven in 2002, director Todd Haynes explores the shadows of forbidden relationships in the remarkable Carol. While the earlier piece revisits the glossy late 1950s — in the lush style of director Douglas Sirk — Carol creates a darker view. Instead of decorating the drama with picture-perfect panoramas of a New England village, Haynes explores a darkened Manhattan trying to find its rhythm after the tension of World War II. As if anticipating what his daring characters will face, Haynes pictures a stark environment where people search for ways to connect while the world anxiously observes.
A stylish woman trapped in a cardboard marriage, Carol dreams of meeting someone she can love unconditionally. That she searches for this relationship among the women of Manhattan conflicts with a time period when people cannot freely express such romantic aspirations.
As the women begin to explore how they care for each other, Haynes’ camera acknowledges how others may not be prepared for what they see. The sun never shines on his world — defined by its shadows — as the women try to define what they can mean to each other in a world that refuses to permits such a relationship to flourish. Against all odds they try to play by their own rules. But, in the 1950s, people who reach beyond tradition can get caught.
Such rich characters offer two actresses many opportunities to shine. We expect Cate Blanchett, in her second award-worthy performance this year, to excel at a character of such rich layers. While this portrayal may initially seem a careful variation of other roles she has played, including Blue Jasmine for which she won an Oscar, we soon realize how subtle a transformation she maneuvers. With each glance, Blanchett creates a sense of mystery, telling us little about what this woman thinks, and forcing us to discover what happens inside her mind and heart.
As the object of Blanchett’s affection, Rooney Mara is perfectly pitched as a lady who may be less timid than she suggests. With her bright eyes and broad expressions, she captures the essence someone who hopes that danger will enter her life. And she’s not disappointed.
For Haynes, the film is another triumph in his independent march to cinema honors. Rather than look at the tensions of an earlier time through a contemporary lens, he examines how people of a long-ago period would react to complexity. By refusing to let the characters express themselves with words of 2015, Haynes recreates a time when people can say so little about what they really feel. This tension makes Carol worth seeing. And impossible to forget.
- Content: High. Patricia Highsmith’s daring novel about forbidden love becomes a breathtaking movie about people discovering what love can be. And may require.
- Entertainment: High. With two strong actresses investing their souls in the characters they play, Carol never lets our eyes or thoughts wander from what we experience on screen.
- Message: High. While director Todd Haynes is too careful a moviemaker to make his points too obvious, he lets us discover what these women, and how they learn to care for each other, teach us about the layers of relationships.
- Relevance: High. While this is not a film for the family, it does offer parents the chance to talk with older teenagers about the realities that any relationship must manage.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Sharing this film with older teenagers can give parents a prompt to talk through how the demands on relationships may have changed over the years. Or not.
(Carol is rated R for sexual/nudity and brief language. The film runs 118 minutes.)
5 Popcorn Buckets
Let’s Talk Movies: Carol brings Todd Haynes full circle
By returning to the social mores of the 1950s in his new film Carol, director Todd Haynes revisits the setting for his classic tribute to the stylistic views of Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven. But the new film is quite different in the content it explores and the world it creates.
“Manhattan in 1952, the setting for Carol, is very different from the New England of Far From Heaven, set later in the decade,” Haynes said at a question-and-answer session at the 53rd New York Film Festival. “This soon after the end of World War II, New York City was still a distressed place, void of the color that we later associate with the location. To capture this sense of a war-torn but recovering city, I chose to shoot the film in grainy 16mm, to fully render my vision of how a tender, fragile love tries to survive in a place still frightened by itself. That’s why the film looks so muted, so still, void of the color we usually attach to the 1950s.”
For star Cate Blanchett, who explored the look of the period in The Talented Mr. Ripley, also based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, the look of the film perfectly matches the tenor of the forbidden relationship it explores. “Todd creates such an austere look for the film, so minimalist, that it forces us to consider the emotional layers of the environment,” Blanchett said at the New York Film Festival. “He welcomed us into this aesthetic atmosphere that he created for the film. By shooting on location in Cincinnati, a place somewhat off the usual tour of the United States, we were able to separate ourselves from current day. And, because he gave us a two-week rehearsal period, which is unheard of in movies today, we were completely into the mood and the moment when we arrived on set to shoot. He whisked us away to a world we hardly knew and, ultimately, did not want to leave.”
Blanchett and Haynes agree the film celebrates what it takes for love to evolve, a process that is no different for two women to experience than for a man and a woman. “It’s all about people and how they discover the capability to love, navigate through heartbreak, and become interested in people over objects,” said Blanchett, to which Haynes adds, “Both of these women are ill prepared for the feelings they experience. They have no example to follow, no model to copy, no cheat sheet to tell them what to do. And, despite their sophistication, they show a lack of preparedness for this kind of love that leads them to make some dangerous choices.”
One technical dimension Haynes carefully considered was how the women should carry themselves. Working again with costumer Sandy Powell, who also created the looks for Far From Heaven, Haynes carefully considered the how the women should walk, stand and use their voices, paying close attention to “where the voice should sit in the body.” As he explains, “that world is so far away from how we live today, and we could not make artificial attempts to contemporize the story, that would weaken the story. So every detail had to capture the essence of how these women lived and tried to learn how to love.”
As Haynes said, “this is a movie about people who fall in love, who dare to travel unchartered emotional territory, their desires, their restraints, their hopes that avoid traditional views of destiny and change.”
Thanks to Haynes, Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Carol becomes a must-see film in a year filled with special movies. “By staying true to the time period – a moment in our history before people became so comfortable spewing their emotions – these woman remind us how much people can say when they can’t say a word,” Haynes said.