|'Carol's wooing of Therese is no different to any wooing of a poorer younger character by an older richer character; items are bought and the pair depart on a Carol-funded road trip'|
Todd Haynes' period Romance, Carol, has a startling turn by Rooney Mara, as lovelorn beau Therese to Cate Blanchett's titular, older character. Whether in support or lead (these things matter truly only to awards obsessives), Mara crafts an endearing turn here, which gives Carol a level of attraction and heart where really, often, the film is lacking in both.
Carol is, first and foremost, a traditional Romance, with little to separate it out from the problems that typically come with that crowded field. 'Tell me you know what you're doing', Abby (Sarah Paulson) asks Carol at one point, foreshadowing the inevitable third act conflict with as much definition as Haynes dares. Elsewhere, the lack of definition grates equally: the score, in the first half of the film at least, seems to only exist to accentuate the dreamlike feel of some of the shots; close ups of waving hair, gloves on steering wheels, passing people. Little truly happens to warm you to the characters. Carol's wooing of Therese is no different to any wooing of a poorer younger character by an older richer character; items are bought and the pair depart on a Carol-funded road trip to convenient motels and grander dwellings in Chicago.
In getting them there, Phyllis Nagy's screenplay feels fussy, partially reflecting the tone of the time and film, and of Patricia Highsmith's source novel. 'I always spend New Year's alone, in crowds', says Therese, channelling every cliché known to cinema. The glowing tone sees Nagy replace double negatives with double positives; 'yes, yes I would', says Therese of an offer from Carol. Later, she gets less certain, still affirmative; 'all right. Yes'.
To Hayne's credit, the sexuality of the characters matters not a jot to them, rather it is projected as something of import by those around them. Carol's soon-to-be-ex, Harge (Kyle Chandler, having a good year after his strong lead in Netflix's Bloodline), not only worries that he is losing her, but that he is losing her to another woman, leading him to pursue Carol in an increasingly vindictive manner. Meanwhile, Carol and Therese reach a physical point of relationship and Haynes shies away from presenting it as anything which could be considered an awakening. To make an obvious comparison, the sex here is hugely less symbolic and important to the narrative than it was in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and rightly so for this story, but the French film also got the relationship entirely right, whilst Carol never reaches its peaks. Are we that happy to see Carol and Therese themselves happy, for a time? There's perhaps something there, but it does not feel as though it goes beyond the happiness you find when you meet two strangers who are obviously in love. The more successful Romances make you feel that those strangers are dear friends, their union a success of love over whatever worldly strife they have overcome.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Carol's worldly strife does not arrive until the final third, where it is perhaps too late to be properly overcome in the context of a one-hundred and eighteen minute film of traditional structure, nor to be the true conflict in the same. Is that a problem? Perhaps. The final sequence of scenes (a meal in a restaurant, a party, a final scene) is triumphant, finding the poignancy that the film has searched for, though it may disappoint those wishing to also find definitives.