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Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016 12:04 am

Carol: A modern take on yesterday’s oppression

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol.

 

In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, director Todd Haynes takes the refreshing approach of looking at the era of repression that was the 1950s through a modern lens. Rather than give us a Douglas Sirk-like exercise, much as he did in Far From Heaven which recreated the tone of implication in regards to the characters’ true natures and desires, he’s much more obvious in portraying just what the title character and the object of her affection want. The result is not a film that revels in explicit examples of their sexual behavior but rather a tasteful, mature movie that presents its characters as complex, flawed and genuine people, as it eschews the notion of condescending to its audience as films from the ‘50s often would.

Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a woman far too opinionated and direct for the era she lives in. Dying a slow death in a stifling marriage to a possessive man (Kyle Chandler) who doesn’t understand her, she’s embarked on a dalliance or two in her past, most recently with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). With some reluctance, she put an end to that affair and has been attempting to live the life of a dutiful wife that’s expected of her. However, her longing for something more – and someone else – can’t be suppressed once she catches the eye of Therese (Rooney Mara), a shop girl working at a department store where she goes to buy a present for her daughter. Instantly smitten, she “accidently” leaves behind her gloves, an act that prompts the young woman to contact her, setting in motion a series of events that will change them both.

Haynes’ film is a mannered exercise for good reason. The story and sexual tension between Carol and Therese progresses deliberately, building to a slow boil that eventually results in a tasteful, erotic scene of lovemaking that’s discreet, passionate and titillating without being exploitive. While Haynes is telling this story with a modern sensibility, the characters are very much of their era, behaving according to social norms, never being too forward, slowly getting to know one another before finally letting their guard down. The pace of the film may strike some as a bit ponderous but there’s a method to this tact that eventually pays off in huge emotional dividends.

Much of this is reflected in the performances of the two leads. Carol initially comes off as being overly aggressive and obvious in her intent, Blanchett giving us a woman whose frustration pushes her towards breaking social norms though it will put her in great peril. Once Carol realizes this, she reigns herself in and the actress gives us a convincing yet subtle turn as a woman who’s a victim of her desires, so much so that she ultimately throws all caution to the wind. Blanchett runs the gamut here, and it’s a delight to see her deliver such an impressive, nuanced performance.

It could be argued that Rooney has the more difficult role as Therese is a bit of an enigma, even to herself. Not yet fully formed emotionally or sexually, her appearance early on suggests that of a doll, a person who can be easily manipulated to another’s bidding simply because she has no will or opinions of her own. But as she becomes more involved with Carol, she matures to the point where she becomes a self-assured woman taking her first steps towards being a strong, independent individual.

In the end, Carol is wise enough to know that the relationship between these two women cannot end with every loose end tied up in a nice, neat bow. Haynes knows we’re too smart to accept anything so convenient. The uncertainties and passion Carol and Therese possess for one another makes it very clear that whatever will become of them will be messy, at times ugly, possess periods of bliss and will be never less than honest. In many ways, that’s all any of us should ever expect when entering into a love affair that prompts us to put our own well-being at risk.  

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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