Romantic Drama Film 2015: "Carol" (Written by Phyllis Nagy, Directed by Todd Haynes, With Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara)
You know what some folks say: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned". That phrase, first coined by 17th century English playwright and poet William Congreve, couldn't be more accurate in capitulating the narrative through-line of Todd Haynes's astutely directed "Carol", a period piece of rarefied beauty that exists nestled in a filmography of dynamic works of unequivocal resonance. This line can best be applied to both characters - Carol Aird, portrayed with Ingrid Bergman classic movie star decadence and Rooney Mara's demure, aspiring photographer Therese Belivet, a department store clerk imbued with sweetness, sincerity and undying earnestness and trust in virtually everyone. Perhaps it is fury that also drives auteur Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to make a commensurate adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's lauded 1952 novel "The Price Of Salt" that makes some necessary adjustments to Highsmith's work in order to make it digestible for current film goers and 21st century cultural mainstays.
Todd Haynes may, in fact, be one of the most studious filmmakers working today. Never mind his purist tendencies to strive to stick with film-stock and his strict aversion to digital video, Haynes is a learned connoisseur of 19th and 20th century film. All of this films are exquisite, well-composed period pieces that offer rare insights into worlds previously unexplored by younger generations. I was especially taken back by the production design in this film. Calling to mind the scrupulous design elements of films such as the Tobey Maguire-Reese Witherspoon fantasy comedy “Pleasantville” in which two contemporary teenagers are mysteriously transported into the world of their favorite 1950s sitcom, “Carol” is a feast for the senses. Scenes having Carol speed by in her classic Cadillac with reflective mood lighting and lens flares bouncing off the windshield with vintage ad-men in the background crossing the street gives the whole film a nifty throwback element. The diner scenes are expressly stately as are the rooftop dances in Therese Belivet’s vacuous world. When Carol sprays perfume on her palms, its whiff has a way of emanating through the celluloid. Therese’s amateur photography sessions are given their screen time as well as there are several scenes of her threading film stock via the sprockets in order to make a muse out of her wistful subjects. Therese, we learn, is a train enthusiast and a sporadic chance encounter in her department with Carol acts as the driving force that spring loads the film into forward motion. What starts as innocent and innocuous chit-chat - Carol is distressed over not knowing what to get her daughter for Christmas and, upon realizing the oh-so-perfect doll she had in mind was a hot seller citywide - looks to Therese for some much needed guidance. Sooner than you can say "bean-shooter" ("gun" in detective novel lingo) the two develop a very fast connection and their intrepid and forbidden affair unravels.
Now, unlike this year's other 1950s-based drama, the UK produced and dual US and UK distributed "Brooklyn" with Saorse Ronan in the starring role, this film's romantic plot is central and not secondary. In the former, the creative team not only painstakingly recreates the era but pinpoints the psychological underpinnings that come with feeling like a complete stranger in a faraway land and the journey toward adaptation and eventual enlightenment. Tonally, that film is also many shades brighter than this one as if the screenwriter-directing team opted to imagine the world with vivid, candy-colored glasses and a kaleidoscopic splash of optimism. Carol, contrarily, is more brooding and realistically dismal in its scope. Its characters - major and minor - are blunt and exacting in their intentions and when the film morphs into classic noir territory, we see the birds coming home to roost and burdens from choices made ooze out into the open for all to feast upon.Therese's seemingly innocent profile could easily stump any man and if this was a traditional set-up, the whole thing would have played very differently. But, because this is a homosexual romance with two consenting women, it unfolds more like a game of chess where each is tactical and onto the other. Haynes's earlier companion piece - 2002's "Far From Heaven" with Julianne Moore and her reclusively secretive husband played by Dennis Quaid, has a good majority of the same themes and plot structure as it unfurls more predictably but is no less impactful in its execution. I'd recommend screening that one before viewing this as it would enliven your appreciation for the material presented.
When film production and screenwriting professors ingrain the phrase "character is action" into an aspiring student filmmaker's head, its not drilled in just for its own sake. Haynes impressively lets you know unquestionably where several of the motives of his characters lie and yet still keeps you guessing. No two parts are the same and no two moralities are alike. Cory Michael Smith's small but crucial private investigator who is hired by Kyle Chandler's Harge Aird, Carol's husband has a memorable introduction. Smith, widely known for his portrayal of Edward Nygma in the serialized Batman universe prequel TV series "Gotham", hams it up to a measurable quotient and, much like Nygma fuses two completely disparate personalities into a single performance. Think of his Nygma persona as his audition tape for this scenery chomper of a character. Kyle Chandler, on the other hand, displays immense restraint and, when compared to the glossy spectacle acting of his co-stars, appears muted. I liken his portrayal to that of Liev Schrieber's Boris Spassky in the chess docudrama based on the life and career of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer in Dir. Edward Zwick's "Pawn Sacrifice". In that picture, Schrieber, as Fischer's Soviet Union champion counterpart during the height of the Cold War, under acts so much as he elicits the majority of his emotions with his eyes and facial mannerisms rather than dialogue. Chandler's put-upon, thoroughly conflicted husband is a solitary, traditional man longing for a nuclear family marriage that is now completely out of reach. It is devastatingly effective to watch him.
If you are looking for a decadent, eye-popping and transporting film crafted with loving hands with an appreciation for a bygone era and the purity of old fashioned sensibility, "Carol" is clearly your ticket. Functioning as both an acting showcase of a very high order and a production designer's wet, fever dream it all but transcends its genre and takes the very best of what makes them tick and work like a well-oiled machine. This film also has a lot to takeaway from for the current crop of student filmmakers trudging their way through film school and dramatic writing conservatories worldwide. If ever there was a film to inspire working artists to continue fine-tuning their respective crafts, it may just look a little something like this. Highly recommended.