The Film: Carol
The Pitch: Mad Men but with less work and less booze … and more lesbians
Number of Nominations: Six
Which Categories? Best Actress. Best Supporting Actress. Best Cinematography. Best Costume Design. Best Original Score. Best Adapted Screenplay.
Will it Win? Its best chances are for costume design and adapted screenplay.
Aficionados of mid-century design and fashion who are still feeling the loss of Mad Men will find much to admire in director Todd Haynes’s wonderfully-realised vision of the 1950s: low-slung Packards, bright yellow and red taxis, cans of beer that have to be opened with can-openers, phone booths you can sit in, and stylish ladies gloves. (Carol may be the first film where a pair of ladies gloves is used as a plot device).
In the early 1950s, department store clerk Therese Belivet is entranced by Carol Aird, a self-assured suburban housewife. As their relationship intensifies, Therese and Carol find themselves subjected to vehement scrutiny, especially by Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Harge, and Carol is pressured to abandon the affair in order to retain custody of her young daughter.
Costume designer Sandy Powell is competing against herself: she is also nominated for her work in Cinderella. She has won twice before (Shakespeare in Love and The Aviator). The characters in Carol certainly look authentic, and that is due in large part to Powell. It’s not just the clothes; the accessories (headscarves, watches, spectacles, jewellery) have all been chosen carefully.
There is no Oscar for casting, let alone for casting extras, but whoever picked the people to be in the crowd deserves one. There isn’t a face that doesn’t look like a face in an old photo.
The screenplay is by Phyllis Nagy, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, and it’s very good and rather clever (Carol and Therese triumph and then meet defeat in a town called Waterloo).
The cinematography by Edward Lachman is filled with both bold, bright colours and drabness (the two women embark on a road trip that takes in some dingy motels and diners), and the film makes the era seem simultaneously ridiculously glamorous and pathetically grim (it was shot on Super 16 mm).
Carter Burwell’s score is rather elegiac and reminiscent of some of the work he has done for the Coen Brothers.
Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara face strong competition in their respective categories, and although both give terrific performances, I don’t think either will go home with an Oscar this year.
Blanchett already has two Oscars, and will no doubt win more in the future, but she more than deserves one for Carol. She gives an exquisitely poised performance, pitched as flawlessly as her appearance (she looks fabulous in every scene of the film, and could lead a one-woman crusade to bring ladies gloves back into fashion, as well as casques, cigarette cases, and peignoirs).
But there’s far more to Blanchett’s performance than stylish clothes and accessories. She brings tremendous depth to what could have been a dreadful stereotype of a closet case: upmarket 1950s suburban housewife who is also a secret lesbian. Carrying herself like an elegant, exotic bird, speaking in a self-assured, deliberate tone, and often allowing a sly, knowing half-smile to cross her face, Blanchett is both at ease and on guard as Carol Aird, a woman who has probably never had to worry about much of anything, but who knows that her world could come crumbling down if she makes one tiny mistake.
The tiny mistake comes in the form of Therese Belivet (Mara). And the two could not be more different. Where Carol is confident and outgoing, Therese is mousy and withdrawn. She can’t even decide what to order for lunch. She doesn’t dress frumpily, though; she has her own style – simple, compact, businesslike with perhaps just a hint of an artistic rebellion.
Blanchett is also a good head taller than Mara (and several years older – Therese’s youth is a big part of the attraction). Mara gives a very subtle performance, and brings great vulnerability to again what might have been another one-note character: virginal shopgirl (and aspiring photographer). I haven’t been hugely impressed by Mara for several years, but she is wonderful in Carol.
They meet at the doll counter at the department store where Therese works: a perfect metaphor for what society expects of women. A transaction between an exemplar of the Ladies Who Lunch and one of the lowly mortals who serve them is of course rich material for drama or comedy, because it brings with it so many associations (money, class, education). Therese ends up selling Carol a train-set instead (limited edition, handmade), and the cost is not mentioned by either woman, because of course there’s no question that Carol can afford it, and no question that Therese would ever assume that she can’t.
It’s one of the film’s outstanding scenes: superbly staged, written, and acted. Can you fall in love at first sight? Carol would suggest as much. Therese glimpses Carol in the distance, and is immediately entranced, and instantly confused by what she’s feeling. After all, she has a young fellow, Richard, who wants to marry her and take her away to Europe. In the parlance of the film, they haven’t gone all the way yet. Carol and Therese conduct their business, and Carol compliments Therese on her Santa hat (Carol knows hats, after all, so we have to assume she knows what she’s talking about). Oh, and Carol leaves her gloves behind. Accidentally or on purpose?
Their burgeoning friendship is threatened by the film’s ostensible villain, Carol’s soon to be ex-husband, Harge (stuffed shirt Kyle Chandler, who looks constipated for much of the film), and supported by Carol’s ex-girlfriend, ‘Aunt Abby’ (Sarah Paulson, very good in the few scenes she has).
Carol is most definitely a prestige film; in a different year, it would have been nominated for more than six Oscars (why director Todd Haynes was snubbed I don’t know; likewise, the film deserves a Best Picture nomination).
Verdict: Four and a Half Close Female Friends out of Five