Film Review: Carol

I’m going out on a limb here but I have to say I don’t understand the fuss about this film. Sometimes there are movies that receive enormous critical acclaim, described as the most beautiful and meaningful thing ever made but when it’s finally released to the public you just don’t see what the critics see. While I enthusiastically endorsed recent critics’ favourites including Macbeth, Suffragette, Black Mass and Steve Jobs, I genuinely just couldn’t understand their rhapsodic reviews of Carol which was shown at the London Film Festival. Todd Haynes’s earlier film Far From Heaven which focuses on the same period and essentially similar themes was a much better depiction of female emotional life in 1950s America, and one that actually generated more emotional connection for me.

The problem with Carol is that it left me cold – certainly not the reaction that I had expected – and one that was seemingly shared by a number of other civilians in the audience. You almost never see this at the film festival, but a lot of people were checking their phones throughout and a couple behind me on the way out said it was just ‘alright’ – not a ringing endorsement for a film that has been lavished with 5 star reviews. Sadly I think it’s one of those films that generate a lot of interest because of its subject matter particularly when associated with a big star name, which critics feel they have to love regardless of its shortcomings.

Carol is the story of two women who fall in love in 1950s America when they meet over the counter of a department store at Christmas. Based on what I’m assured is a so-so novel by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is a well-to-do housewife apparently separated from her husband and living at home with her son. While out shopping she meets Therese, a sale assistant, who she develops an interest in and soon the pair are meeting frequently for lunches and outings which nobody seems to find odd given their respective class. But Carol has a pattern of behaviour, considered outrageous at the time, and her husband threatens to take her child away. What follows is an examination of duty and sacrifice, to understand if love really can conquer all when a child’s future is at stake.

Part of the problem here is that the relationship between Therese and Carol just isn’t believable; they accelerate from eyeing each other up over the shop counter to being openly in love and running away together which seems both too fast in the context of the film and totally unlikely in the period this novel is set. It’s not the performances but somehow because the story is trying to so hard to emanate emotional and meaningful subtexts it actually fails to connect properly with the viewer. You never really know where it’s going and it doesn’t ask enough questions about who these people are and why they’re behaving as they do for us to invest in the individuals and their struggle. For example we don’t learn much about Carol, where she’s come from or the extent to which she’s been suffocated in a conventional marriage. In one scene there’s a hint that she’s openly engaged in a previous relationship with her similarly-aged female friend so it seemed a shame not to more fully explore the slightly predatory nature of her personality – a woman who is openly homosexual and pursues a considerably younger and clearly confused woman. Haynes seems instead too eager to show both Carol and Therese in a sympathetic light because this is a mainstream film about a female relationship rather than giving us interesting and troubled character studies of the type Highsmith tends to write.

Therese is actually a blank canvas and it’s virtually impossible to see what attracts Carol too her. Played by Rooney Mara, she is clearly beautiful and confused – shown using her reluctance to become engaged to any of the men she knows – but there is almost no depth to her, I would even go so far as to say insipid. I didn’t even like her as a person so I couldn’t bring myself to care if her relationship works out. Carol (Cate Blanchett) was by far the more interesting and sympathetic role and Blanchett does her best, but again it felt like so many opportunities were thrown away either to offer a sensitive study of a woman forced into a certain way of living or  to explore someone defying convention to live the way she chose whatever the consequences. Blanchett is such a credible actress that she gives us plenty of pain, frustration and feeling, but this is all unfortunately muffled by the strangely cold perspective of the film.

If you contrast this with Far From Heaven which so brilliantly depicted the same restricted period and its particular difficulties for women, the earlier film far outshines Carol. It covers many of the same themes, a troubled marriage, the expectations on housewives to be perfect, how latent homosexuality can pull a marriage apart, as well as the growth of deeply felt but unconventional relationships (in this case between a conventional woman and her black gardener), and the failings of Carol seem almost insurmountable against the beauty of Far From Heaven. Carol is clearly exquisitely put together, the colours muted to reflect the troubled story and everyone looks fabulous all the time, but it’s all just so empty.

I really wanted to like this film and had very high expectations from the reviews it garnered at early film festivals. Sadly this is an Emperor’s New Clothes situation – and I realise this may well be an unpopular view – but the inattention of the audience and my own lack of engagement with any of it makes this a wasted opportunity. Despite Blanchett’s hard-working central performance, I have to agree with the couple behind me, it’s just alright. Carol could have been a considerably better film.

Carol was shown at the London Film Festival and opened nationwide on 27 November so see it at your local cinema. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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