Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler Director: Todd Haynes
It's 2015. It's been ten years since Brokeback Mountain was denied the Best Picture crown at the Oscars and since then, only a few LGBT films have been of the quality to really capture the Academy's attention. But that might be about to change. Because in Carol, we see two majorly acclaimed actresses giving a same-sex relationship between women the same treatment that Brokeback did for gay men. So has the landscape changed enough for Carol to do what Brokeback Mountain couldn't? Well it's certainly good enough. Therese (Mara) works at a toy counter in a department store and when she meets glamorous housewife Carol (Blanchett) in the store, there is an instant spark between them. Returning the gloves that Carol deliberately left behind, Therese is pulled into a whirlwind romance just as Carol is going through an ugly divorce with her husband (Chandler), who is aware of her previous sexual history. Determined to prevent Carol from seeing her daughter, he begins to employ increasingly devious tactics to win sole custody of the child, leaving Carol an increasingly desperate wreck.
This is an intimate portrait of a love affair with its subtle nuances its finest asset. Though set in 1950s New York, the era is not glamorised or the issue of homophobia exploited. Though potentially this could have been a worthy piece about LGBT rights, the issues surrounding the legality of same-sex relationships only rears its head when it becomes pertinent to the plot. This isn't a piece glorifying the crusade for equality, but instead a personal story of the love between two people and the law is only one of several factors standing in their way. This is probably Blanchett's finest work, which is saying a lot considering her recent renaissance of film roles. Carol is a complicated and strong character, whose slow unravelling is a distressing watch. But for me, just like the Cannes Grand Jury who awarded her their Best Actress prize, the real star is Rooney Mara. Therese is a quiet and withdrawn character, who slowly smoulders with longing and a thirst for personal discovery that provides the steady bedrock against which Blanchett dazzles in the showier role. Chandler provides strong support as the wronged husband, while Sarah Paulson is a strong counterpoint to Carol's hysteria as her headstrong ex-lover Abbie.
This is a film stuffed with rich authenticity. Though its period is ripe for visual exploitation, the costume and sets are just on the right side of realism, not once straying into distracting what is essentially a timeless piece about human interaction. It says a lot about the strength of the script that its characters are so universal that the fact it's about two women is almost incidental. It's about two people with obstacles to their love and, just like countless romantic films throughout the cinematic cannon, the enjoyment comes from seeing these two compelling characters grapple with these. And, as though embracing its place alongside the greats, it pays clear tonal and literal homage to one of the greatest romantic films of all time, Brief Encounter, through both its opening scene and its compelling ending. Carol also flirts with various genres, at times feeling like a road-trip movie, at others a drama about social injustice. Veering toward moments of heightened drama, Haynes shows measured restraint in maintaining the focus that essentially this is a story about love, rather than heading into cheaper plot devices. Though there are moments when it could do with a little more pace, its self-discipline is what makes you root for their love to overcome the obstacles, hoping above hope that the universe will let them be together. But with the odds stacked so firmly against them, their motivations and complexities are absorbed by the camera through looks, smiles and eye movements that say about as much as any line of dialogue could. But despite this, the script is still so rich that it stands alongside some of the most quotable love stories ever put on film. "Why should I go against my grain?" Carol asks of her husband. And we all demand his answer, which never actually comes.
Available to download, stream or buy on DVD.