July 23, 2019


Sings a Sad Song

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


It often takes a long time, sometimes forever and then perhaps never, for someone to become tolerant of something that he or she doesn’t understand. More often than not, it’s because they feel threatened by it. Director Todd Haynes, who with “Carol” champions for lesbians what his “Far From Heaven” (2002) embraced for male gays, knows homosexuality is way up there on the list. To illustrate the scope of this prejudice, he finds dramatic effect by reaching back to the 1950s and showing how, just yesterday, countless lives were ruined by this primeval bigotry.


This isn’t to say civilization has now cured itself of centuries devoted to enforcing strict taboos against alternate lifestyles. However, at the very least, the liberal activism of the ‘60’s initiated a dialogue. As Mr. Haynes so artistically examples, prior to that enlightenment, being gay was accorded full pariah status. Thus, all but the most provincial minds will be aghast at what Cate Blanchett’s Carol and her female lover, played by Rooney Mara, must endure.


It is 1953, all buttoned up and proper, especially around the suburban New Jersey neighborhood where the Aird manse sits in pristine glory. But scratch the surface just a touch beyond the stone Tudor opulence and therein resides some pretty unhappy people…specifically, Harge and Carol Aird. They don’t mention the cause of their disaffection, but rather talk around it, the reticence to be direct indicative of the myopic disdain hubby feels for this unexplainable thing that has torn his perfect little world asunder.


Cut from the same social fabric, her breeding evident with nearly every gesture, Carol feels badly for the disappointment she represents. But clearly, even though the times they are not yet a changin’, she’s had it. Being asked to pursue a path that only feels wrong can’t be right. She has sued for divorce, the lawyers of the rich and tony sharpening their knives at the prospect of big profits. Doubtless there’s an extra-added bonus buried in the bill for avoiding scandal. But just to add heartache to the misery, there’ll be a custody fight for the Airds’ dear little daughter, Rindy.


To this scenario, courtesy of the screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Mr. Haynes injects the necessary love story. It begins when Carol, looking for a Christmas gift for Rindy, becomes enamored of Miss Mara’s Therese, a shop girl. While the classification is belittling now, it is all the same vital to conferring the disparity in social class and just about everything else, save for the mutual chemistry the ladies feel for one another. The relationship builds subtly, Haynes deftly arranging the stumbling blocks to their verboten liaison.


Problem is, while instructive of the sociology the film seeks to examine and edify, it is not an especially exciting romance. Knowing looks, skeptical glances and eyes full of either love, trepidation or puzzlement substitute for dialogue, precluded by the unmentionable subject. It’s what Haynes means to impress, and he is successful in that ambition, but overall the oblique referencing, accompanied by a score that underlines the inherent, fatalistic sadness of the tale, worked much better in his “Far From Heaven.”


That said, there’s no denying the fine performances the Misses Blanchett and Mara etch, achieving an understated elegance that discreetly clamors the unfairness society has foisted upon them. They are beautiful, gentle victims seeking no more than the love all of humankind has sought since first we rose from the muck. While Miss Mara is stellar as the novitiate afraid but curious to explore her sexual liberation, Cate Blanchett’s superbly realized aristocrat embodies all the woes, whims and expected responsibilities of her caste.


Playing her frustrated and confused husband, Kyle Chandler’s Harge is the bull in this fragile china shop of conflicting emotions. In one uncomfortable scene at tea, where Carol is attempting to ingratiate herself with her patrician in-laws in hopes of a better child custody arrangement, the clueless blueblood proudly tells Mumsy and Dad that his wife has made considerable progress with the doctor. Psst…actually a psychologist, and he’s referring to conversion therapy, a practice from the dark ages that only recently has been repudiated.


Director Haynes’s studious delve is rife with historical perspective, complemented by art direction that smartly transports us to a post-war smugness eager to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, the library-like solemnity by which his message is delivered begs for a boost of energy, perhaps an invigorative subplot, to both enliven matters and promote the thesis from yet another angle. Presenting the social issue in a broader context might have also advanced the cause by introducing “Carol” to a potentially larger audience.

“Carol,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Todd Haynes and stars Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler. Running time: 118 minutes


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