Film review: Carol isn't just a lesbian movie

Film review: Carol isn't just a lesbian movie
Carol stars Rooney Mara (left) and Cate Blanchett.
PHOTO: Shaw Organisation

Run Time: 118 min
Classification: R21
Genre: Drama
Grade: 4.5/5

At the heart of director Todd Haynes' masterful Carol lies an ineffable understanding of love - romantic, familial and platonic - and how the complexity of human emotions can be simultaneously beautiful and destructive.

Indeed, Carol and Pixar's Inside Out, which was released to widespread huzzahs this past summer, would make an interesting double bill for their deeply moving exploration of what it means to be human.

Set around Christmas time in 1950s New York, Carol revolves around the bourgeois Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) whose marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) is troubled because of her sexuality. When she meets a listless younger salesperson at a department store, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), their subsequent affair becomes a life-changing experience for both.

Rounding out the brilliant ensemble are Therese's boyfriend, Richard Semco (Jake Lacy) and Carol's best friend and former lover, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson).

Set in a time where homosexuality was a whispered-about taboo, the success of Carol lies in the restraint of both Haynes' directorial vision and Phyllis Nagy's screenplay, which is based on author Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt (subsequently retitled Carol).

Unfolding against the aesthetically pleasing snowy, swirling Yuletide festivity of gift-giving and effusive expressions of love, the film's restrained exploration of the burgeoning relationship between Carol and Therese is especially illuminating given its illicit status. 

It certainly helps that Blanchett and Mara give career-best performances, with both finding harmonious notes that not only make a relationship between a glamourous society maven and an introverted sales associate possible, but authentic.

Set to Carter Burwell's incisive and moving score, both actors convey their deep loneliness and inhibitions through fleeting glances filled with latent emotion and conversation, all lensed by Edward Lachman to woozy perfection.

It would have been so easy for both actors - particularly Blanchett - to settle for mannered, stereotypical portrayals of women confined to particular roles by virtue of their gender and the time period of the film. Instead, we get two lived-in portrayals of women trying to be true to themselves.

In this vein, Carol is more than just a film about sexuality - it is a film about female empowerment during a time when it was not encouraged.

It is no wonder that the film has won a slew of awards, while earning 5 Golden Globe nominations and a Best Actress prize for Mara at the Cannes Film Festival where the film premiered early this year.

The Oscars are undoubtedly next.

Carol opens in cinemas on Dec 24.

prabukm@sph.com.sg

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