Long lingering glances. Silences. Closeups. Muted colors. Muted emotions. Exquisite plains and pains. Despite its elegance, beautiful acting, female-centric plot and world, Carol did absolutely nothing for me.
Carol is ostensibly about shameful, forbidden love, and (I apologize for spoilers, but I will spoil) — I think — about daring to be free of shame and live authentically. Thus, in the movie’s best scene (for me), Carol challenges her weak ex-husband to move beyond vengeance and to remember his better self in order to do what’s best for their child. Whom she is now renouncing full or even shared custody of in order to live with Rooney Mara’s character. Which to me spells disaster for her young lover: Carol seems prone to leaving people.
Because the movie is so stately slow and detail oriented — normally a great tonal choice for me, with my penchant for picking up on small points (often to the point of missing the big theme), I had lots and lots of time to think. And I kept asking myself, what do we know about Carol? What kind of person is she?
We don’t really know. The director, screenwriter — and indeed Blanchett, aside from lots of restrained, semi-predatory looks — give us very little of Carol’s character (or of Therese’s, the young lover, for that matter). We know she is rich, but it is unclear whether she married into money or has some of her own. Chances are, given the times and relative lack of social mobility for women, Carol comes from money. So ok, she’s rich. When Therese, Rooney’s character, gives her a record (and gee it was nice to see Colony Records again) as a Christmas gift, Carol leaves it to balance precariously on a napkin — not something you would do if you treasured the gift. On the other hand, she takes extreme care with her outfits, hair, makeup, and accessories. She leaves her gloves behind, but that was likely a flirtatious move to initiate further contact with Therese. She seems to love her daughter, but is easily talked into buying her a train set rather than the cherished doll she had requested. And she has broken off with a previous lover (as well as with her husband). Although Abby attributes the finished relationship to their both changing, Abby seemed to do a lot more for, give a lot more to, Carol than vice versa. I sensed unrequited love. What this all added up to for me was not someone who is bravely moving out of the closet, but instead someone for whom carelessly breaking hearts and leaving the shards behind was a pattern of behavior. I did not believe for a moment that this love of hers and Therese’s will last.
And then why should it? Therese is herself young and unformed (in her best line, she says “I don’t know what I want. How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?”). When she sees Carol again after their breakup and Carol commends her on how well she is looking (actually, just like an ethereal Audrey Hepburn after having looked like a plainer, more grounded Susan Strasberg or Julie Harris in act one), a great deal of this improvement is due to her having taken her life into her own hands professionally (as opposed to romantically): getting a career-track job and pursing her photography. So why does Therese even need Carol? I tried to figure out what made her change her mind (other than having a few hours to think things over). Best I could come up with was that she felt lonely seeing everybody else — including her ex-boyfriend — paired up at the party she attended.
So I really could not buy into the romance at the heart of the picture, and I suspect that’s cynical of me. But who were these women and what, other than a predilection for same-sex coupling, did they share? The movie makers gave us no clues in this regard.
Plus I was continually being taken out of the movie’s magic by reminders of its falsity. New York was apparently played by Cincinnati. But more distressingly, winter was played by fall. There is no way in deep December that there would be green grass in Iowa. And there was no interstate highway system, as alluded to by a minor character, in 1952. These inaccuracies kept me distanced from the picture, immune to its romance. It also might be that the whole love-that-dare-not-say-its-name trope doesn’t play for me; that I am wholeheartedly accepting of love of any stripe — provided I perceive it as sincere.
And too, where I had admired Paul Gauguin in my teens for following his artistic spirit to Tahiti, I have since worried more about Mrs. Gauguin and all the little Gauguins. One can and should live authentically, but perhaps delayed gratification is not wrong where children are concerned.