Cate Blanchett’s hammy idea of playing a 1950s lesbian in Carol is to skulk and glower, scoping-out a department store salesgirl with such overscaled intent that she mistakes deviousness for desire. As affluent New Jersey housewife Carol Aird, Blanchett wears a full-length mink coat, closeting her nature within the very wealth and privilege that constricts it as “strange.” Because Carol’s stuck in a one-way marriage to a broad-shouldered hunk (hunky Kyle Chandler in the film’s best performance), Blanchett “suffers” extravagantly. Her diction comes from no finishing school in the U.S.A.—let alone Jersey—so that she seems to be speaking in tune to some lachrymose string quartet playing in her head. The way Blanchett stalks little Rooney Mara recalls the predatory Gestapo lesbian in Open City whose femininity was furtive and sinister. Blanchett’s so excessively melodramatic that she makes director Todd Haynes’ gloss on the conventions of mid-20th century Hollywood melodramas redundant.
Blanchett’s performance is exactly what the film Carol deserves given its smug conceit to teach audiences about the difficulty of being a gay woman in a repressive society. But Carol is less than what audiences deserve. It contradicts the contemporary evolution of gay social acceptance—the now-deflated pressure to conform—that ought to relieve us of the outmoded emotional burden of shame.
Instead, Haynes drags us back to period-picture anguish (as he did in 2002’s stultifying Far From Heaven which featured Dennis Quaid’s unforgivable characterization as a pathetic-deceitful closeted gay husband). Haynes’ warped vision of Hollywood supposes a safe space to make purely academic, unoriginal gripes against white middle-class patriarchy—another useless redundancy. Fact is, 1950s films by Vincente Minnelli (Tea and Sympathy), Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), Phil Karlson (Gunman’s Walk), George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, Shane), Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Fred Zinnemann (A Member of the Wedding), Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Suddenly Last Summer), Jack Garfein (The Strange One), and several others were already trailblazing, non-conformist—and subtle—visions of gay social and emotional struggle. Despite received opinion to the contrary.
But Haynes’ bland filmmaking style lacks the sensual luxuriance of Hollywood soap operas (he’s a Forever 21 window display next to Minnelli’s Saks Fifth Avenue). Haynes is incapable of celebrating the multifaceted thrill of sexual and social liberation. Indeed, Carol has been praised for its sanctimony by the usual gay and film cliques in lockstep (as they were when the maudlin Brokeback Mountain was made into an inauthentic “landmark.”) Eager to promote what seems new, they overlook how Carol is alarmingly old-fashioned. Love object Therese (Rooney Mara) is so alienated from her own sexuality she’s like a virgin from the Victorian era. Haynes even canonizes Therese to resemble Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina to complement the martyred Carol, who is costumed after Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment.
All this, obviously, flatters the market for gay P.C. fashion. The problem is that the market can be so easily calculated, manipulated, exploited—but not tickled. Carol and Therese’s make-out scene gets all gauzy and modest—as if to make lesbian sex soft-core classy. Thankfully, Haynes doesn’t commit the fratboy leering of Blue Is the Warmest Color, but his “discretion” is equally false. Would a female director have been more convincing at the crucial moment? Haynes' glum drama kvetches more than it liberates. This may appeal to some (Carol’s fight for child custody lets Blanchett play martyr), but it straightjackets libertines and stifles the romantic impulse.
Carol starts by pilfering David Lean’s 1946 melodrama Brief Encounter—its break-up scene that gets repeated with special nuance. Leans’ masterpiece expressed its era’s spiritual yearning as well as it moral codes, which means it is outside Haynes’ rigid academic project and maybe beyond his comprehension. He sentimentalizes gay self-acceptance as mopey and sappy. As a result, Carol has the unhappiest “happy ending” in gay movie history.
Carol opens in select theaters Nov. 20. Watch the trailer below: