It feels like almost yesterday that Cate Blanchett picked up her second Academy Award for Blue Jasmine back in early 2014, but in fact it has been nearly two years filled with mixed success, in my opinion. Though I had some affection for The Monument’s Men, arguably the biggest picture for her in these two years was Cinderella, a film that smashed the box office, but also a film that I did not like at all. However, from the first moment I heard of Blanchett’s casting in Carol, a big screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, I knew that Australian actress was sure to get back to winning ways.
And, I am pleased to report, I was not wrong in my conviction. Carol tells the captivating tale of a shy young shop assistant named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who begins an intense, all encompassing friendship with a woman named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) for whom she provided over the counter assistance during the Christmas sales. The film is very much a slow burn, and over the course of many lingering looks, deep conversations and an impromptu road trip, the audience see Therese and Carol evolve from good friends, to better friends, to lovers. Of course, a simple tale of slow burning romance would not quite suffice in a cinematic sense, and the narrative’s driving force comes in the force of a messy divorce and custody battle between Carol and her estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and in true 1950’s fashion the theme of Carol’s fluid sexuality becomes a weapon that is used against her. As somebody who has read Patricia Highsmith’s original novel, I must say that I was thoroughly impressed by the adaptation overall. In an extremely refreshing take for a 1952 work, the book very much implores the audience not to find titillation and scandal in the lesbian love affair, but rather disgust and sympathy in the way in which the romance is used by her husband to try to confiscate and ruin everything that the character holds dear. There are no particularly gigantic rises and falls within the plot, in truth the story is a very small one a basic level, and a lot of audience engagement is achieved through exquisite attention to detail and a real talent by the filmmakers for creating an atmosphere and tone that feels almost irresistible to be a part of. Though it may not pack the visceral emotional gut punch of a same-sex love story like Brokeback Mountain, there is something quite enchanting about Carol and the way in which the film is sleek, stylish and paced in a way that, whilst not necessarily slow, allows each scene or line of dialogue to really rest, marinate and hits it’s mark. It’s an extremely controlled and well executed picture that does well to avoid many of the cliche tropes that both 1950s lesbian fiction and mainstream same-sex cinema often apply. Ultimately, it would be an exercise in unnecessary margining to label Carol as simply a ‘gay movie’ and leave it to be consumed by niche audiences. The two central romantic protagonists happen to both be female, but what the film does so well is to make the story about so many more factors than simply their sexualities, and this broad focus serves for a much wider appealing picture than some might expect.
As I alluded to above, this really is a return to sparkling form for Cate Blanchett. The actress gives an exquisite performance as the eponymous Carol, perfectly capturing the irresistible allure to win the heart of a normative stranger, yet also hinting at the loneliness and vulnerability that living a life such as her’s must have entailed in the story’s era. Blanchett looks almost born to wear the opulent fashions and elegant tailoring of the period, and she is utterly believable both as a woman of the 1950s and a woman with hidden layer beneath even more hidden layers. As Therese, Rooney Mara puts in a great performance as the more innocent, more susceptible, more inquisitive of the pair. Though my cinema going companion remarked that she felt a distinct lack of chemistry between the two leads, I personally felt that the marked differences between both the characters and the actresses added to the tone of unlikely love in a difficult setting. It does have to be said that Mara, on occasion, does not command the screen in the way that her sparring partner does, but when you are faced with the task of acting alongside a true generation great at the peak of her powers, not many young actresses would be able to completely keep up. Of course, there is the simple fact that Therese is a meeker, more unassuming character in general, but one cannot help but feel in certain moments that Mara’s slight failure to meet Blanchett’s level is a little mote than just character choice.
Overall, Carol is a seductive, sweeping romance that allows the audience an insight in to just how easily one can fall for another in spite of the lives they have lived up to that point. It is also a social drama that highlights the social attitudes to themes of taboo sexuality of the time without necessarily giving in to them. Worth a watch for the enigmatic performance of Cate Blanchett alone, I am sure we will be hearing much more about Carol throughout awards season.