Monday, 25 January 2016

Carol (2016) - Movie Review

It’s Oscar season again, which means that it’s time to buy that new case of Burn Out Repellent that will no doubt be needed. However, unlike last year where we were awash with World War II-era films that I’m positive will pop up later on this year regardless, it seems that the consensus for the Academy has shifted. And no, this isn’t an easy set-up for the current racial issues being brought up about this year’s Oscars; as I have stated before, the Academy ultimately doesn’t matter, so whatever in-house drama is going down follows the same fashion. Instead, I’m talking about how, since the decision to legalise gay marriage nation-wide in the U.S., it seems that quite a few of the more prestige releases are shifting towards romances that aren’t in the cis norm. Between Freeheld from late last year, The Danish Girl from last week, and the generally warm reception that was made towards films like Tangerine and The Duke Of Burgundy, I think it’s an easy bet that this type of film is going to be the current flavour for a while longer. I can only hope that the rest of the crop will fare better than this, however.

The plot: In a chance encounter, store worker Therese (Rooney Mara) meets divorced socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett) while at her job. They have a romance. For reasons I will get into, you will realize how this is pretty much all the plot that this film has.

More so than a straight-up romance film, this feels more like a coming-of-age story in hiding for Therese. She’s shown as being a timid and submissive person, just going along with what everyone else wants her to do, but there is an almost instant change in her mannerisms once Carol enters the picture. On what could be loosely called their first date, Therese is shown actively trying to make herself come across as more mature: Constantly shifting her posture to match Carol’s, ordering a martini, accepting a cigarette even though it looks like it’s her first time ever smoking; it makes for an interesting bit of character building on her part. Not that the effects of the age difference are one-sided, as Carol’s character shapes the relationship along the same lines… only in what I can only hope was a differing fashion than what was intended. Throughout the film, Carol is fighting with her ex-husband over the custody of their daughter; the only social interaction she has before meeting Teresa is with Abby (Sarah Paulson), a former flame of her’s. She is very clearly desolate with her own life, save for when she sees her daughter… or when she sees Therese, who seems to have been deliberate tailored to look like the daughter. This adds a certain Freudian element to the story that… well, let’s just say makes the romance a little awkward in places.

Despite being set in the 50’s, there’s something weirdly modern about the film. It doesn’t feel like, in terms of dialogue at least, anything has been made intentionally of the era. However, rather than feeling timeless and probably fitting in better given the current market for non-heteronormative romance stories, it instead makes it feel anachronistic given how blasé most of the reactions are to the core romance. Instead of it being a point of concern because it is two women being together, it seems to be more urgent because it is a younger person being with an older person; gender barely plays into it. When Carol and Abby or Carol and Therese are in open conversation, it doesn’t feel like any real attempt is made to hide certain details that would be frowned upon at the time. When Therese’s disposable love interest Richard (Jake Lacey) brings up her relationship with Carol, the only point of contention is the age difference. Harge wants to put an end to the relationship, but it comes across more like he’s a spiteful arsehole than anything else, right down to hiring an extremely obvious private investigator to stalk the couple. The only time that the lesbian angle truly comes into play is during the legal hearing, and that’s only because of a slightly veiled reference to Carol needing psychological counselling because of her past.

Now, all of this leads to the notion that this is being treated like any other coupling; one where the gender(s) of those involved are irrelevant and all that matters is the affection they have for each other. This is probably the best step forward possible considering what has come before it. This could be a new milestone in queer cinema, one where the labels are made invisible and it starts to become normalised. Words cannot express how much I want this kind of change to happen so we can collectively move forward.

That said, this shift that should be welcomed doesn’t work within the confines of this film. The first reason for that is what I mentioned before: It is way too downplayed, yet the film wants it to be seen as taboo for the era. For as much as the film wants to show off the forbidden romance side of the story, the way it ends up being portrayed ultimately means that it is only forbidden for reasons that don’t add up for the time frame. The other reason is something a bit more damning though: At the end of the day, the romance itself lacks urgency.

Carol and Therese have all of one scene where they come across like an actual couple, rather than just friends. As gender-biased as this reading may come across (oh, the irony), their one and only sex scene was probably the most engaging part of the entire film. And no, not for the obvious reasons. It was the one moment where it felt like there was any level of secrecy beforehand, since that scene was where they let go of their inhibitions and truly connect in the most intimate way possible. Outside of that, and probably because of the efficacy of that one scene, their supposed deep romantic engagement feels more like a fling or a one night stand that Therese is taking to mean more than it did. Sure, the ending tries to give some retroactive relevance to their connection, but overall it has the same impact of a high school crush. Now, once again, this could’ve worked if the film framed it properly, and speaking of which the cinematography for this is definitely striking in how well it literally frames a lot of key shots. If this was meant to be a coming-of-age experience for Therese and force her to come to terms with how complacent she is in regular life, then maybe this could have had something to grip onto. Instead, by putting so much stock into their connection and it is indeed ‘true love’, the fact that it is as downplayed as it is ends up harming the overall film.

All in all, I was expecting to run into a disagreement during the awards season; I just wish that it wasn’t with this one. While the acting is definitely strong and the direction reaches points where it legitimately impresses, its overall approach to both the core relationship and what should be the consequences of said relationship leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. I give credit where it’s due for its attempts at portraying some sense of timelessness, but it seriously doesn’t fit with the story presented nor the era it’s set in.

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