SPOILER ALERT: This article contains information about the film that will reveal plot development and character detail.
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“Is there any point in fighting it?”
It’s the question Therese asks Carol after Carol reveals that her soon-to-be-ex-husband is suing for sole custody of their daughter on grounds that Carol is morally unfit to be a mother.
It’s also the question posed to audiences repeatedly throughout “Carol,” a film profiling the budding romance between a high society lady and a working-class shop girl that’s receiving a lot of Oscar buzz for stars Cate Blanchett (in the title role) and Rooney Mara (Therese).
The film is set in 1952 pre-feminist era America, a time when men brought home the bacon and their wives fried it up in a pan. Women who traveled in well-moneyed circles spent their days shopping for new shoes, enjoyed three-martini lunches, sneaked cigarettes behind their husband’s backs and were known to the world as “Mrs. So-and-So” rather than by their own first names.
It’s also a period in our history that was heavy on morality, family values and “The American Way.”
Indeed, much of what we see in the film — from weighty mink coats to heavy wood and thickly-upholstered furniture to behemoth Packards with wide metal fenders and fat white-walled tires — seems to cinch everyone tightly into a corseted existence.
The story of Carol and Therese is intimate, specific to what the two women experience without reference to what’s going on in the world around them. It’s only through occasional snatches of conversation overhead from nearby radios and televisions that we learn that Dwight Eisenhower has just been elected president and the witch hunt for so-called card-carrying members of the Communist Party that stained our nation’s history has only just begun.
Carol floats effortlessly through this stifling world of convention, pretense and judgment.
She plays the roles of trophy wife, trophy mother and trophy socialite well, with pleasant smiles and impeccable manners masking the increasingly frustrated woman yearning to bust out and dance wild to the beat of her own drummer.
Therese, on the other hand, is young and inexperienced in the ways of the world.
In an opening scene to the film, Therese seems a lovely doll among the many dolls that she’s setting out for display on the department store counter.
It’s the scene where the two women meet for the first time, the scene that sets off the chain of events to follow in which they explore their love for one another and the possibilities that such love can bring despite the odds.
Therese’s question to Carol is surprising, coming at a time when the two women are only just starting to reach out to one another. It’s not so much a question as to whether or not it’s worth fighting against Carol’s husband on the custody issue, as a question about whether or not the two women should fight for the future they might have together as a couple.
Blanchett and Mara were both nominated for Golden Globes for their performances.
The film has been nominated for six Oscars, including best actress (Blanchett), best supporting actress (Mara), best writing (Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of the late Patricia Highsmith’s book “The Price of Salt”), best cinematography (Edward Lachman), Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell) and Best Original Score (Carter Burwell). The Oscars will be handed out Feb. 28.
Although both Blanchett and Mara maintain their roles well, the chemistry (sexual or otherwise) just isn’t there. Development of the relationship is slow and overacted, with furtive glances, long hollow stares and general clumsiness. The experience of coming together doesn’t seem to change either character by film’s end, with narrow-eyed Carol looking as chic and sophisticated and doe-eyed Therese looking as plain and child-like as they looked at the beginning of the film.
With Carol having wealth and access to all the resources she needs to ensure the relationship with Therese remains discreet, there’s no reason for either of these women to take the kinds of risks that would give the story the kind of edge that would hold our attention.
Abby, one of Carol’s oldest gal pals played by Sarah Paulson (who was recently linked romantically with actress Holland Taylor), provides us with only enough background on Carol to understand that her interest in women isn’t just a passing fancy.
Lots of nagging questions about Carol’s family history, why her relationship with Abby ended, how Carol met her husband and what business Carol’s husband is in that affords her the luxuries of living the life of one of the New York area’s most affluent women remain unanswered.
Despite all, however, the film is worth seeing if only to remind us of how “under the radar” our forefathers and foremothers had to be about their relationships in times when “gay” just wasn’t in fashion.
Was there any point in fighting it? Absolutely.
Does “Carol” make its point? Sorta’.
The film is produced by Number 9 Films, Film4 and Killer Films and is directed by Todd Haynes.
It is currently playing at theatres across the Carolinas. Check local listings for showtime.
— Chris Tittel is an avid movie-goer, with a master’s degree in acting and several stage plays to his credit.