January 28 — February 11
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
Based on the underground bestseller The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol has all the elements to become the Brokeback Mountain of this decade: a beautifully rendered story of illicit love between two homosexuals that gives that relationship the same dignity, respect, and emotional resonance we generally only get from (some) male-female romances. Just as Brokeback Mountain’s cowboys defied cultural stereotypes about the “manliness” of male homosexuals, Carol imbues its lesbian couple with warmth, sensitivity, and genuine complexity. The relationship between Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) is mature and compelling. In other movies, the ambitious, disingenuous Therese would have been portrayed as a schemer latching onto the older, wealthier woman; or Carol would have been presented as a worldly, decadent seducer of the virginal youth. But neither is the case: Therese and Carol are equal partners in the relationship, with neither holding power over the other. This approach is refreshing, and it makes us realize just how dishonest and male-centric other cinematic depictions of lesbianism usually are (how often do we see a male character come between the two heroines, for example?). Highsmith was known for tough crime thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but as film critic Kate Stables notes in Sight & Sound, her groundbreaking 1952 novel (written under a pseudonym) wasn’t altogether a departure: there is a great deal of suspense implicit in the story of two women in ‘50’s American trying to hide (while giving in to) their sexual attraction for one another. Their sexual orientation is a “crime” in the eyes of society, and a particularly risky situation for Carol, whose husband plans to use this information to divorce her and gain sole custody of their child. Director Todd Haynes has evoked the wistful, swooning romances of ‘50’s cinema before—Far from Heaven (2002) was a masterful pastiche of Douglas Sirk melodramas, the kind that starred Rock Hudson and flirted with (hidden) homosexual subtext. Carol is period-perfect, too, but it’s not the dreamy, larger-than-life emotionalism of Far from Heaven: it’s more somber, more grounded in the soul-crushing reality of living in a world that denies people the right to freely express (or even pursue) their love. Not that Carol is grim or depressing—the novel was astounding for its time because it actually allowed its lovers a chance at happiness at the end (no one was punished for her “sins”). The first part of the film is deliberately paced, showing the subtle pas de deux that occurs after Carol and Therese first meet, when they’re attempting to decode one another’s signals without scaring the other away. There’s an understated delicacy to this section that makes other “adult” romances seem childish and clumsy. The second part of the film, when Carol and Therese bravely take a long westward trip together, pursued by the detectives hired by Carol’s husband, sparkles with vitality and energy—appropriate to the feelings these women have once they escape the claustrophobic confines of New York City and can more openly address their feelings for one another. The central performances are flawless: Cate Blanchett might have her best role as Carol, whose air of languid sophistication masks a frightened, lonely soul. Rooney Mara seems flightier, more naïve—but she’s surprisingly tough and wise to the ways of the world. Neither character is taking advantage of the other’s vulnerability, so this is truly a relationship between equals—so rare in any romance, where filmmakers have to make one person “dominant” and the other “needy.” Not here. This is a movie for grown-ups, a fact made clear by the film’s period setting (expertly captured by cinematographer Edward Lachman) and Phyllis Nagy’s precise, literate adaptation of Highsmith’s novel. In addition to Blanchett and Mara, Carol benefits from Sarah Paulson as an old flame of Carol’s, and TV nice-guy Kyle Chandler is an about-face role as Carol’s bigoted, vindictive husband Harge. His performance is bone-chilling, and gives the film extra dramatic tension as Carol and Therese must decide whether to stay together and risk Carol’s facing humiliation in court and losing custody of her young daughter. Far from Heaven also dealt with the necessary deceptions involved in the lives of homosexuals in Eisenhower’s intolerant America, but Carol wields a sharper edge with its incisive, unblinking look at how many people were forced to conceal (even from themselves) “the love that dared not speak its name.” Blanchett and Mara are surefire Oscar contenders, and their performances accomplish much of what Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger did in Brokeback Mountain: they play characters whose love for one another is more important (to viewers) than their sexuality, so that moviegoers don’t see a “gay romance” but simply a “good romance.” Strongly influenced by that British classic of missed romantic opportunity, Brief Encounter, Haynes has created a film that any viewer will find deeply moving. Though always acknowledged as one of our most intelligent, fascinating filmmakers, movies like Safe and I’m Not There have caused some critics to accuse Haynes of remaining slightly detached from his lead characters, observing their plights without signifying any feeling one way or another about their happiness. Carol is a significant step forward to proving Haynes is a truly compassionate filmmaker: moviegoers will be just as invested in the lovers’ dilemma as the director, and the result is one of the most powerful, unforgettable films of 2015.
Cinema NewsManhattan Short Presents Film of the Week. Each week the Festival Screens a Past Finalists Award Winning Film Online. Click here to watch the film short of the Week.
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