Arts & Culture

‘Carol’ performances captivating, not ‘groundbreaking’ cinema

Blanchett, Mara shine in ‘Carol,’ illuminating social stigma against same-sex couples in 1950s America

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2016

The film “Carol,” directed by Todd Haynes ’85, has received critical acclaim from journalists and critics all over the world. Receiving a standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere, “Carol” has since gone on to garner numerous accolades, including six Academy Award nominations. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are nominated for best actress and best supporting actress, respectively. 

In the film, Blanchett stars as Carol, a dutiful mother-of-one in the process of divorcing her husband, Harge, played by Kyle Chandler. The divorce is complicated by Carol’s developing romantic relationship with a young shopgirl and photographer, Therese, played by Mara. The complexities regarding all three characters stem from the legal and social framework built against same-sex couples in 1950s America. The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt.”

The Avon Cinema’s small, single screen and mid-century decor provided the perfect viewing for “Carol,” as the film emanates a 50s aesthetic from its very core. From the soft, warm lighting of its cinematography to the simple elegance of Carol’s many fur coats and white gloves, it is a film whose quality depends as much on its time and place as on its characters and storyline.

While the pacing of the film is slow at points, it allows ample time for Haynes to develop the nuanced and subtle relationship between Therese and Carol. The unspoken moments between Blanchett and Mara are as important as their dialogue, given how same-sex relationships were stigmatized at the time.

Blanchett’s performance in particular is heartbreaking. She plays Carol with such strength and elegance that the moments when her cool exterior breaks down are truly agonizing for the audience.

Despite the artistry of “Carol,” the film’s six Academy Award nominations and numerous positive reviews — some of which called it “groundbreaking” — are somewhat surprising. I question whether we should consider a film featuring two white women in a same-sex relationship as truly groundbreaking cinema. “Carol” follows years of other films starring white lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer characters. Just this year, “Carol” is up against more striking Oscar-nominated performances of LGBTQ characters, such as Eddie Redmayne’s depiction of a transitioning transgender woman in “The Danish Girl.”

It’s important to ask as a viewer why films like “Carol” and “The Danish Girl” receive ample funding and publicity from the film community, but films like “Tangerine,” which intersects race with the genuine experience of a transgender woman, are shunted off to the side of the mainstream.