I wanted to beat it with a stick and cry, ‘Get on with it!’: Carol reviewed

Previously I had thought you can’t have too much of Cate Blanchett, but there is a heck of a lot of her here - and she’s mostly stagey and mannered

28 November 2015

9:00 AM

28 November 2015

9:00 AM


15, Nationwide

Carol is an easy film to admire — so beautiful to look at; entirely exquisite — but such a hard film to feel anything for. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt, this is a love story that, here, doesn’t venture below the waist, literally, emotionally or metaphorically. It glides across its own glittering surfaces, never investigating what may lie beneath, and playing restraint to the point of inertia. Its director, Todd Haynes, has spoken about how hard it was to make a Hollywood film about two women, starring two women, so I feel bad delivering the news, but deliver it I must: what was taboo in ’52 may not be that exciting today.

Set in 1950s New York, and with costumes (by Sandy Powell) and mis-en-scène to die for, come back to life, and die for all over again — the furs!; the hats!; the shiny, gunmetal Packards! — this follows the ‘forbidden romance’ between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara). Carol is the older. Carol is wealthy, in the midst of a divorce, and has a little daughter, Rindy. (Rindy? Rooney? Each to their own, I suppose.) Therese is in her twenties and works in a Manhattan department store. They meet in the run-up to Christmas, when Carol arrives at the store to buy Rindy a particular doll but, having sold out of that doll, Therese advises a train set, and their eyes lock. Carol purchases the train set and I did want to know what Rindy thought of it, having been expecting a doll, but we never find out. Perhaps they are saving that for Carol 2: The Slog Continues.

Therese and Carol start meeting: in restaurants, at Carol’s place, in Therese’s modest apartment. Their increasing attraction to each other is told in looks, glances, further eye-locking, a hand left on a shoulder for a beat too long. It’s meticulous, but on and on it goes, without any changes in the coolly detached, humourless tone, so it feels like the same scene played over and over, with no tension, story development, or narrative propulsion. It’s all so enervating. I wanted to take a stick and beat it while imploring: ‘Get on with it!’ and ‘Come to life, God damn you!’ This is not so much the love that dare not speak its name, as the love that looked at the energy that might take, and promptly decided against it.

The second hour is an improvement, I’ll admit, as an escalation in the ugliness of Carol’s marriage means the two Actually Have To Do Something beyond glance at each other, meaningfully, for what feels like hours, and possibly days. So they embark on a road trip, in that gunmetal Packard, travelling along the west coast, staying in motels. But this is a film, which, unlike Brooklyn, say, cares more for its visual style than its characters. For example, even though Carol is now living out of a small suitcase, and you’d expect her to show some signs of dishevelment, she still always looks as if she’s spent the morning running between her furrier and Vidal Sassoon. Their love is consummated, but so tastefully, and with such an absence of any below-the-waist action, and such an absence of pent-up desire, it’s a total non-event. They might as well have been unblocking the sink. It’s as sexy as that.

The novel is different. The novel is told from Therese’s point of view, thereby offering us her interior life: her fears, her desires, her loneliness, her awakening sexuality. But this makes Carol the centre of attention, and robs Therese of any psychological heft or depth whatsoever. She is passive, insipid, and forever gazing out of windows, passively and insipidly. I think even my goldfish Bubbles has more personality. (‘I do!’ Bubbles has just confirmed.)

Meanwhile, although I’d have previously said you can’t have too much of Blanchett, there is a heck of a lot of her here. She is resplendent and magnificent, but so stagey and mannered that the performance eclipses Carol herself. Ultimately, it left me cold, and I didn’t care what happened to either character; didn’t care if they stayed together or were forced apart; didn’t care if they stayed together and weren’t forced apart but one decided she couldn’t bear the way the other ate soup and opted to call it a day. My only concern was whether Rindy, who was the hapless victim in all this, was happy with that train set. I sincerely hope so.

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  • Phil Lindley

    This is brilliant. I’ve just watched ‘Film 2015’ having a gushfest over this movie and at the end of a few clips I got the same impression as your review. Also it seemed to me that the director was trying to pay homage to every old love story movie ever made. Kinda felt like that moment when you’re drunk and don’t know whether it’s best to go to bed with the room spinning or put fingers down the throat.

    • Dogsnob

      Barf. Every time.

  • You wanted to see below-the-waist action? Good lord. Isn’t that what every other movie offers? Doesn’t it ever get … boring? What’s the need to spectate on intimacy really about, anyway? From the sounds of it, this movie fails not because it isn’t crass enough, and predictably louche enough, but because it didn’t give the characters a compelling relationship. Indeed, it sounds a waste of time.

    Sigh: it’s official. Gays of both sexes are DULL. Even pretend ones in the movies.

  • Timber56

    Wow did the time period, the context, the reason for the character’s constraints and restrain, go over your head.
    “My only concern was whether Rindy, who was the hapless victim in all this”

    • aspeckofboggart

      Todd, thanks for the self-promo-and-congrats link.

    • Roger Sponge

      “The circumstances that Carol is in and that inform her character’s disposition and manner, particularly in the first half, completely elude you.”

      Any reason why we have to have any interest whatsoever in what happens to two Lesbians in 1950s New York?

      • Timber56

        Who’s we? And who told you that?

  • Fiona

    Thank God for this review! I think Carol is honestly the worst highly rated film I have ever seen. It was just a homage to vintage clothing and two attractive women.

  • Elisa

    Thank you for this review; I too had high hopes for the movie, after having read Highsmith’s odd little novel, and read all the hype around *Carol*. A movie about repression should not succumb to repressing itself, which is what I think the Haynes’s mannered direction does. The script was so anaemic that we never learn why Carol and Therese fall in love with one another, or what they even see in one another. The film doesn’t treat its main characters are fully-rounded people. It’s not impossible to make an intelligent film about forbidden love – “Portrait of a Marriage” does just that – and superbly! Carol could have been a great movie if it wasn’t so self-conscious.

  • Ava04

    I just saw Carol, and was glad to see this review, as I also think it’s been incredibly over-praised. Having said that, it’s a sumptuously gorgeous film, so beautiful to watch, but it’s all just classy veneer. It also seems like a re-tread of Far From Heaven, a film homage to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. How can films based on such consummate melodrama fail to be moving? This is one of those movies that makes me think, while watching, “yes, that is sad”, but never made me actually feel sad.

  • Joe

    Thank god for this review, indeed. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes. Decent skill and filmmaking went into this movie, but it is such a waste of a movie that it doesn’t matter at all. I’m glad a smart person finally took the time to articulate exactly why this movie is terrible (at least terrible compared to the level of praise it gets).

    Yes, they are lesbians in the 1950s when it wasn’t popular to be lesbians. So what? Go somewhere with your movie or don’t make a movie at all.

    Also to the point about the train set, how little Carol seemed to care or even notice her daughter just helped underline why I didn’t care at all about her. So not only is it a boring story but one with leads we have no reason to like.