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Carol PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sheila Seacroft   
21 12 2015

ImageDirected by Todd Haynes

Carol is a grand, intense love story in the mode of 50s weepie-meister Douglas Sirk, awash with luscious retro fashion, heartbreak, meaningful glances, inch-perfectly composed shots, with an extra dose of social worthiness that no-one can disagree with. The critics have fallen into a collective swoon-fest over it, so much that I'm wondering if my slightly lukewarm reaction is because my expectations were unrealistically raised. The truth is, it never truly touched me, despite my great admiration for the Patricia Highsmith novel on which is based.

Therese(Rooney Mara) is a would-be young photographer working in a department store when Carol (Cate Blanchett), arrives at her counter to buy a present for her daughter, Rindy. Carol, almost the antithesis of Therese, is an older woman, all style and wealth, perfectly made-up and coiffeured, Fifth Avenue-clad, self-confident. Their eyes meet; they fall in love.

Things go swoozily and swimmingly (but oh-so-slowly - this is a long crawl rather than a butterfly), until Carol's pompous pudden of an ex-husband Harge decides that their ‘forbidden' relationship makes Carol an unsuitable mother, and refuses her access to Rindy (what is it with this family and names?). Carol is forced to choose, and becomes a fearless fighter for her right to be both a mother and a lesbian. (Though a little more time might have been spent letting us see the reality of this maternal affection.) The love affair is filmed in languorous sensuality, making full use of our current fondness for 50s retro charm, sometimes chopping up the loved object into constituent parts - hair, eyes. lips you can almost feel the breath from, ankles emerging below swaying New Look skirts, hands lingering for that brief second too long on a shoulder so intensely you can feel the burn beneath. I expected no less from Todd Haynes, who has previous form (Far From Heaven) in showing the ache and bliss of thwarted or forbidden love in a 50s setting. Blanchett's heavy, creamy features and velvety lips become almost too much to bear, while Therese's sharp little, never still, face is that of a prey always wary of some approaching predator.

But listen to Highsmith describing in her diary how she felt after going to see the woman on whom she based the character of Carol: ‘The curious thing, yesterday, I felt quite close to murder too. Murder is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing... a way of gaining complete and passionate attention...' Where is this dark, ambiguous undercurrent, so powerful in the book, manifested in the film? It isn't. Highsmith's characters are always full of evasiveness, dislocation, and in the book these two women are no different. We see the entire action via Therese's eyes, through which we both relate to Therese's passion but simultaneously see Carol as an idealised, not entirely dependable, enigma. The ‘film' Carol gets a bit of a makeover - she's less capricious, and the moral capital gained from the bravura defence we see her making of her right to be a lesbian and a proper mother to her daughter is something constructed by the screen writer. In the end, the film presents us with a love story while not exploring that love. Undeniably it's a triumph of the presentation of passion, through style, great acting, and masterly direction, but I'd hoped it would provide, along with the sensuality, some note of the ambiguity and psychological violence necessary to love that Highsmith herself felt.

The truth about the real ‘Carol' is even more dark. Highsmith, working at Bloomingdales, encountered her only once, in similar circumstances to the novel. She felt ‘odd and swimmy in the head, ... as if I had seen a vision.' There was never any further contact, except that several months later she sought out her address and made a journey more than once to stand outside and scrutinise her house, on one occasion seeing her drive out. When Highsmith's biographer many years later identified the woman in question, obviously oblivious to her role as muse, it was discovered she was an unhappy alcoholic who had killed herself 6 months before the novel was published - something Highsmith herself was never to know.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, December 2015

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