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Laramie Movie Scope: Carol

Forbidden love in a time of conformity

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 3, 2015 -- This movie created a lot of buzz lately when it landed on top of this year's Metacritic ratings in late November, despite the fact that it is only being shown in a handful of theaters. I got a screening of it last night, and it looks fabulous. It has a couple of dazzling performances, too. It won't make my top 10 for 2015, but it is certainly a very polished film with a good love story.

This is a film about a love story between two women, Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett of “Blue Jasmine”) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara of “Side Effects”). Carol is a wealthy married woman who is getting divorced and Therese is working in a department store. The two see each other across a crowded store, and the sparks begin to fly.

Set in 1952 in New York, the story is adapted from the novel “The Price of Salt” (also known as Carol) written by Patricia Highsmith. This was reportedly shot on Super 16 millimeter film, but it looks fantastic. While I was watching this, I kept thinking this film reminds me so much of “Far From Heaven” (2002). I looked them up today, and the similarity is no coincidence, both “Carol” and “Far From Heaven” were directed by Todd Haynes. Edward Lachman was the director of photography on both films, and Sandy Powell was the costume designer on both of these two films.

This is the kind of classy literary film adaptation designed to pick up Oscars at the Academy Awards, and it might just get some, unlike “Far From Heaven,” which got some Academy nominations, but no wins. There is just something about the clothing fashions and Art Deco designs of the 1950s which are visually compelling. This stuff looks great on screen, and Todd Haynes certainly has mastered the presentation of that style.

The love story between Carol and Therese is handled very delicately in this film. It isn't rushed. The two meet in the department store where Therese works. They see each other across the room. Carol comes over to talk to her, ostensibly to buy a doll, but ends up buying a toy train. She leaves her gloves behind on the counter. Therese mails her gloves back to her, then Carol buys her lunch, and so on.

The two end up driving cross country on a road trip, circling ever closer to each other until finally there is a full out love scene on a motel bed. But just then they discover a private investigator has been following them, gathering evidence for Carol's divorce case, and Carol has to rush home to try to salvage visitation rights to see her daughter.

In 1952, homosexuality was barely acknowledged to exist. Alfred Kinsey's second book on human sexuality, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, would not be published until 1953. Lesbian behavior was not discussed openly and it was considered a mental illness. In the film, Carol agrees (in hopes of salvaging her visitation rights) to sessions with a psychiatrist to cure her attraction to women.

At this point, Therese meets Carol's friend, and former lover, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson of “12 Years a Slave”). There is an attempt, not entirely successful, to fill in Carol's back story. In order to get visitation rights to her daughter, Carol has decided to have no further contact with Therese until after the divorce if finalized. Therese, understandably, feels shut out and gets on with her life, landing a job in the photo department of the New York Times. But that is not the end of the story. The beginning and end of the movie circle back to the same point, then continue on. It is a clever ending, in fact.

A lesbian affair in the 1950s was a dangerous thing, but except for one scene when somebody pulls a gun, there is no sense of danger or jeopardy in this film. Therese doesn't appear to be in danger of losing her job. Carol is an outcast, but seems to be hanging on to some measure of her former lifestyle. The love between Carol and Therese is not condoned by society, but it looks like they could successfully live together, as long as they don't flaunt it.

This is the best love story of the year, superbly acted by Blanchett and Mara and directed by Haynes, but there is not much of an edge to the rest of the story. The 1950s were a time of rigid conformity, which put real pressure on people like Carol and Therese. Not much of that pressure is seen in this film. It is a good, but not great, dramatic love story. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2015 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)