The “social issue” movie has been a Hollywood staple for as long as Hollywood has existed. It’s nice to see a movie with a conscience, yet most of them fail because they put more emphasis on their politics than their story.
By Noah Gittell
The “social issue” movie has been a Hollywood staple for as long as Hollywood has existed. It’s nice to see a movie with a conscience, yet most of them fail because they put more emphasis on their politics than their story. That type of film usually breeds cheers and jeers in equal measure – depending on whether you agree with its message — and not much in the way of thoughtful discussion. It’s easy to write a speech espousing one’s political opinion and put it into the mouth of a heroic figure. It’s much harder, and entirely more effective, to provoke discussion through drama and characterization.
“Carol” gets it magnificently right. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, this ‘50s-set romance tells of a repressed New Jersey housewife who falls for a mousy shopgirl. Deftly depicting the societal obstacles to the fulfillment of their intense feelings for each other, the film keeps its gaze on the characters’ inner lives, allowing viewers to invest in their story – and their struggle.
It starts with a simple transaction. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) buys a Christmas gift for her daughter from the exquisitely named Therese Belevit (Rooney Mara). After Therese returns the gloves Carol serendipitously – perhaps intentionally – left behind, they go out to lunch and thus begins a slow and steady courtship. The two are drawn to each other, but neither of them has the courage to name exactly what they are feeling.
It’s easy to see why, as Haynes expertly depicts the rigid social boundaries of the era. At her store, Therese is surrounded by gender stereotypes: pretty dolls for the girls and army figures for the boys. When she suggests a train set for Carol’s daughter, and Carol accepts the suggestion, it almost feels like code, an unspoken expression of mutual defiance against society’s narrowly defined gender roles. These boundaries, however, are not just a matter of cultural politics; they also have devastating personal implications for Carol and her family.
As the film begins, she is in the midst of a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), but when he learns about her relationship with Therese, he files for sole custody of their daughter, citing a “morality clause” that makes clear allusion to her sexual identity. This sets Carol up with a haunting dilemma, but the film never devolves into a courtroom battle, a la “Philadelphia” or this year’s awful “Freeheld.” Instead, it follows the heart. “Carol” is ultimately a romance, and a fairly optimistic one. Through the characters, it makes a strong pro-LGBT statement, but its politics are appropriately secondary to its gripping personal story.
This approach is supported by the film’s brilliant cast. Blanchett, better than ever, evokes the entirety of the story and setting in her face, hiding deep pain and longing behind a carefully constructed smile. Mara’s more subtle performance shrinks under the weight of Blanchett’s brilliance, although she provides able support to her co-star’s flashier role. Also deserving mention is Chandler, who brings a fascinating balance of victim and aggressor to the betrayed husband archetype. Had he played the character as a pure villain, it would have diminished the film’s impact. Instead, the filmmakers ensure that even the vilest of characters in “Carol” receives dignity and respect.
It’s clearly the most human film from director Todd Haynes yet, and the one we’ve been waiting for. The critically acclaimed indie filmmaker of “I’m Not There” and “Velvet Goldmine” has never lacked for talent or ideas, but his films have always had an ironic, detached quality that left some viewers cold. Not here. “Carol” is a story of people in pain and anguish, but Haynes keeps his gaze on their humanity, and the film derives pleasant warmth from this tenderness. In this way, it reclaims the issue movie from the doldrums of Oscar-bait and reminds viewers that the best way to the head is through the heart.
My Rating: See it in the Theater