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Just when it can't get any worse, you run out of cigarettes.

Carol
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt has been roundly acclaimed, but I was left feeling more respectful than rapt. In particular, I found myself drawing comparisons with his earlier, also ‘50s set Far from Heaven; both are immaculately mounted period pieces, and both revolve around then-illicit love affairs. Where Far from Heaven proved compelling and immersive, dazzling in its Sirk-ian flourishes, Carol is more distant, less approachable, as frosty as its seasonal setting.


The key to which is Cate Blanchett’s performance as Carol Aird. No doubt superficially on my part, I was reminded me of Blanchett’s recent, Oscar winning turn as another upper class New York socialite in Blue Jasmine. It isn’t as if there’s a shortage of good reasons to empathise with Carol, whose husband (a well-cast Kyle Chandler, suggesting stoic agreeability before unveiling the broken rage that lies beneath) can’t accept her heart no longer belong to him, or his gender, and must face the threat of losing her daughter, and deal with the intrusion of legal and surveillance ploys to ensnare her in her “crime”. Yet Carol is too aloof to really engage with, except momentarily, and it’s left rather mystifying why Rooney Mara’s Therese is so in awe of her.


It’s much easier to see why Carol is so keen on Therese, even though the beats of her existence and experience are minimal or familiar (a token boyfriend, a talent for photography, and an averred ability to say yes; “I barely even know what to order for lunch”). Mara, with her expressive, saucer eyes, imbues Therese with the sense of a deeper well, making her significantly the more interesting party.


Carol is, for the first half, as steadily engrossing as any Haynes picture, immersing itself in the anticipation of attraction and courtship in a manner as much indebted to Hitchcockian accentuation of detail as capturing the styles and scenery of the period. In this regard, Haynes is far more attuned than Guillermo del Toro, with his exaggeration too far in Crimson Peak, and makes stolen intimacies count for that much more (in which respect Carol occasionally reminded me of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence).


But, while Carol is glacially well observed (with a marvellous, understated Carter Burwell score), particularly in documenting the travails of leading a lesbian life in the face of unaccepting mores, I was left mostly unmoved. Initial immersion in what might transpire retreated to the level of polite interest. The replayed scene near the end of the film had exactly this diminished effect; it’s quite clever, but in terms of what has actually been added to our understanding of Carol and Therese in the interim, it was more enticing sight unseen.


Carol is beautifully made, with dignified performances (despite my misgivings over Blanchett’s), an insightful screenplay and meticulously confident direction, but I was nonplussed by the potential of a happy ending for its protagonists. Perhaps such restraint is ingrained in Haynes’ evocation of era, but I rather think (going back to comparing it negatively with Far from Heaven) it’s a choice that undermines its potential.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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