January is one of my favorite months of the year. No, it’s not because the kiddos have gone back to school after Christmas break or because Coronado’s damp streets are blessedly deserted by most of the folks who love to visit our fair city. January is one of my favorite months because it’s the time of year when there is a deluge of cinematic delights popping up every week in time to be eligible for those coveted Oscar nominations. These delights are like little champagne bubbles rising to the top of a very full glass of the best champagne. I swear that the production houses wait to release their very best films just before the voting begins in earnest for the next Academy Awards (which is in its 88th year, just in case you were wondering).
One of these delights is Todd Haynes’ Carol, a film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt. If you have seen the film’s trailers, you will be forgiven for thinking that the film is about a married housewife who breaks her husband’s heart because she engages in a forbidden affair with a younger woman. The fact of the matter is that this film is bigger and simpler than that. This is not a lesbian film; this is a love story between two people who happen to be lesbians.
The story begins at the end really, when there has already been a good amount of heartache and heartbreak. Haynes then takes us back to the beginning, when shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) first lays eyes on Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who has come looking for a Christmas gift for her young daughter. As Belivet writes out a receipt, Aird looks upon the unaware twenty-something with an eye that is both appraising and knowing at the same time.
Aird’s life is complicated. She is in the midst of a divorce that is about to turn really nasty while Belivet is at that stage in her life when she is still trying to figure out who she is. Belivet has a steady, if ill-suited, boyfriend who is in a hurry to start a life with her. Aird’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), still professes his love for her and cannot stomach or tolerate her predilection for women. The time is 1950s America when being gay was not only a dirty secret that had no business seeing the light of day, but was also seen as a kind of mental defect that could possibly be rectified by countless psychotherapy sessions.
Harge wields his wife’s sexuality like a weapon leading up to their custody hearing. But Harge is no one-dimensional character who is easy to hate. Instead, in the hands of the most capable Kyle Chandler, Harge is easy to identify with as a heartbroken spouse who wants desperately to have his wife and his life back. Aird won’t have it. She is at the point in her life, some would say her mid-point, when she just cannot stand to live another second lying about who she is and whom she loves. I cannot say enough about Cate Blanchett’s performance. This sounds so cliché but she truly delivers one of the best performances of her career. During one incredible scene where she commands the screen, I realized that I was holding my breath, waiting for the words to fall from her mouth. She is that good.
For her part, Rooney Mara is amazing as the somewhat-naïve young woman who is drawn into a complex and confusing relationship with the older, more sophisticated Aird. There are many moments when this actress shines, but keep an eye out for a scene where her performance is raw and extraordinarily real.
Both actresses have received Academy Award nominations (Blanchett for Best Actress and Mara for Best Supporting Actress) and honestly it would be a crime if either are passed over. In addition to the performances, Judy Becker’s production design perfectly captures the look of the early 1950s and Carter Burwell’s music is both graceful and somber.
The one thing I can promise about the film is that it, quite simply, delivers.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, and Sarah Paulson.
Run time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Rated: Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.
See upcoming showtimes for Carol here.