Warning: Review contains something of a spoiler
Todd Haynes is a tricky filmmaker to really assess because every one of his projects is interesting and bold and while I’m really happy he’s a voice in the film world I don’t know that I actually consider any of his movies to be unequivocal successes. Haynes is an experimentalist who is primarily defined by his willingness to break the conventional rules of cinema. This is, after all, a guy who’s made three different musical biopics (infamously among the most formulaically predictable of genres) and still managed to present his audience with movies as wildly outside the box as Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (a stop-motion film with Barbie Dolls in place of actors), Velvet Goldmine (which used a Citizen Kane format to present a figure who is not unlike David Bowie), and I’m Not There (which cast six different actors, one of them Cate Blanchett, as Bob Dylan). That same experimental daring also holds back a lot of his movies because some elements of them end up working better than others and occasionally they can end up feeling a little too cute by half. Also, Haynes is not a wildly prolific filmmaker. He’s been making movies for almost twenty-five years but only has six feature length films to his name, which makes some of his less successful experiments stand out more than it might if it were being made by someone like Steven Soderbergh who has a huge body of work that his quirky misfires can blend into. By contrast his latest project, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol, has been released to almost universal acclaim and may just be the Todd Haynes film to break through to the masses.
Set in the early 50s in New York, the movie follows a young woman named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who is working in the toy section to a large Macy’s-like Manhattan department store while harboring aspirations of becoming a photographer. Therese is friendly with her co-workers and has an friendly if somewhat distant relationship with a boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacy), but one can clearly sense that she’s not happy and is missing something in her life. Things start to look different when one day an older woman, a wealthy housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), comes into her department store looking to buy her daughter a Christmas present. This seemingly benign interaction between clerk and customer seems to have a disproportionate effect on both, and when Therese realizes that Carol has left her gloves on the department store counter she goes out of her way to make sure that those gloves are returned and Carol goes out of her way to thank her for this gesture. It quickly becomes clear that both parties are looking for excuses to meet each other again but neither are coming out and articulating why. Soon it becomes clear that their interest in one another is not just platonic in nature and soon Therese will find herself in the middle of a battle of wills between Carol and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).
Todd Haynes is mostly identified as a member of the New Queer Cinema movement that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, but if you look at his filmography he’s spent just as much if not more time focusing on the plight of the upper-middle-class housewife in the mid-twentieth century as he has focusing on themes of homosexuality. His 1995 movie Safe was about a discontented housewife and so was his six hour HBO miniseries adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.” Then there was his 2002 movie Far From Heaven, which touched on homosexuality in the 50s but focused less on its homosexual character than on his longsuffering wife. This new film Carol is in many ways about the flip side of that, it’s about a homosexual (this time the wife rather than the husband) who is stuck in a loveless straight marriage that society has pressured her into and can’t leave without potentially losing her daughter. However, this story is mainly told from the perspective of her lover Therese who comes into this whole situation and gets caught up in the whirlwind.
Those expecting another wild experimental idea from Todd Haynes may leave Carol disappointed as the movie is told in a largely linear and naturalistic fashion. The period detail is all here and is exquisitely detailed but the movie doesn’t luxuriate in it. The film is set at around Christmas but there’s nothing jolly about the trappings, rather, there’s a deliberate aura of coldness that’s cast over the film in order to emphasize how lost the characters are in 50s society. The film was shot on Super 16mm film, less out of any budgetary requirement and more out of a desire to add a layer of grain that would both help to capture the period but also to give the film a subliminal solemnity. The film in many ways feels less like one of the proudly confrontational movies of the New Queer Cinema movement and more like something like Brokeback Mountain, another somber movie about homosexuals living in an unaccepting time and finding themselves suffering many indignities and heartbreaks because of it.
Of course this inherent sadness is slightly ironic because the Patricia Highsmith novel upon which the film is based was groundbreaking when it was published in 1952 (under the nom de plume Claire Morgan) it was considered groundbreaking because it dared to have a happy ending, or at least a happier ending than most novels involving lesbianism at the time which almost always ended with the lovers killed or unambiguously separated and unhappy. The ending here appears to be the same one from the novel, but from the perspective of 2015 it sure doesn’t seem all that happy. I suppose part of the reason for this is that the relationship between Carol and Therese doesn’t seem like much of a romance for the ages so much as it’s a rather doomed affair caused by Carol’s discontent with heterosexual domesticity and Therese’s inexperience; one gets the sense that if Carol hadn’t “awoken” Therese she would have continued to be adrift until she finally encountered another like-minded woman who would be forward enough to come on to her. You can’t help but wish that Carol had lived in a time and place where she wouldn’t have been stuck in a marriage she didn’t belong in and Therese could have met someone here own age at lesbian bar rather than being dropped into a family drama with a woman who’s some twenty years her elder.
It would of course be a mistake to assume that all of these problems are safely in the past. There are definitely still closeted gay people out there in marriages that their spouses don’t know are shams and there are probably still young gay people out there whose first partners are a lot older than they are (something that would be pretty unambiguously creepy in a heterosexual context), but one still wonders just how groundbreaking any of this material really is in 2015. This is after all material that could be fairly widely published in novel form way back in 1952 without any major scandal. The film in many ways seems less like the radical “New Queer Cinema” that Haynes was making earlier in his career and closer to something like 2004’s Brokeback Mountain, which was another somber melodrama set around the same time about gay people finding each other and having to live in secret because of the conservative society they were living in. Between the two I’d say Brokeback is probably the better movie, in part because it’s western setting felt both more original and more subversive and also because I felt there was a bit more of a sweep to the central relationship in that film. Additionally, I feel like Ang Lee (who’s made a career out of movies about repressed emotions and lovers separated by circumstance) was a lot more suited to this kind of material than the wild-child Todd Haynes.
Carol is definitely a very good movie but is it the great movie that it’s been declared by dozens of critics since its debut at Cannes? I’m not so sure. I really wanted to love it but something about it just kept it at arm’s length for me. This has been happening to me a lot this year, I’ll see a movie that hits all its notes and hardly has a thing in it that I would want to change and yet I still come away having not quite been thrilled. I don’t know this one might have just been a bit of a victim of its own hype for me. The story never quite jumped out as anything wildly original and as solid as the filmmaking was it never really seemed terribly amazing either. At the end of the day I’m not sure I got a whole lot out of the movie that I wouldn’t have gotten out of an above average storyline on “Mad Men,” but that was a great show so that shouldn’t be viewed as too much of an insult. I don’t want to damn this movie too much with faint praise, it’s not the movie’s fault that I went into it with unrealistic expectations and there’s a whole lot to like about it and like a lot of movies this year I suspect that it will seem a lot better to me as soon as I stop scrutinizing whether or not it’s the chosen one and just accept it for what it is.
***1/2 out of Four