Wednesday, January 20, 2016

'Carol' review

I feel like I've been hearing about Carol forever and I'm really not exaggerating that much. The sumptuous and delightful romance drama from Todd Haynes premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, and immediately thrust itself into the Oscar race. With actresses Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett sharing the prestigious Cannes Best Actress award, Carol was seen as a front-runner going into this year's Oscar season. And despite missing out on a Best Picture nomination, Carol had a very solid showing last week, receiving six nominations including several for technical categories and a pair of nods for its two stars. But I have to admit, I'm still saddened by that. Carol should have done better. Certainly one of the most beautiful and stunning movies of 2015, Carol is a romance for the ages anchored by two of the year's most sublime performances. Blanchett and Mara are incredible in this extraordinary period piece that finds a striking balance between style and substance that works wonders. An emotional journey that you won't soon forget, Carol is a must-see, no matter what the Academy says.

It's the 1950s. A young man walks into a bar on a cold winter night in New York, hoping to get a drink before heading to a party. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a woman. "Therese? I haven't seen you in months!" he says as he approaches the woman. She smiles and says that it's good to see him again, and she introduces him to her friend. "Hello, I'm Carol Aird. Pleasure," says the other woman. "I'm going to a party later, Therese, I was wondering if you would want to come?" he inquires. Therese looks at Carol. "Go on," she says. As they drive over, Therese looks out the window longingly, as if something has truly hurt her. Who are these two women? What is their story? And that is how Carol begins. After that fast and intriguing start, you'll get all the answers you need over the course of a two-hour love story between two women that is pure cinematic brilliance.

Of course, there's much more to this consistently gorgeous love story than what I've just described here. I'm giving not much of a plot summary because I feel like the marketing has really gone out of the way to not spoil too much. The trailers for this film have been very atmospheric and morose, vividly portraying the rich settings and exquisite costumes that dominate such a large portion of the film. But despite those hints, Carol's marketing team has refrained from spoiling much of the actual storyline, something that is refreshing in an era where no plot secrets seem to be off the table (sorry, Money Monster). Not that there are any humongous, Empire Strikes Back-style spoilers in Carol, but I feel like it's a special experience to watch this great film unfold, having no clue of where it's heading next.

I think that the most impressive thing about Carol is the way that it combines all of the elements of film to create a wonderful motion picture. Director Todd Haynes is a master of composition and I love the way that he blends period elements with terrific performances and a sense of warmth or chilliness. Every aspect of this film is absolutely spot-on, reflecting the gorgeous setting and the melancholy heart of the story. Carter Burwell's musical score is sensual and arresting, marking every scene with the perfect tinge of pensive sadness or ecstatic bliss. The costumes and set design are equally handsome, commanding the attention of the audience at all times. Shot with love and an eye for detail by cinematographer Edward Lachman, Carol is the equivalent of looking at a moving painting. And Haynes' knack for making all of that beauty flow so effortlessly is what elevates Carol beyond a typical period romance.

Aside from the lavish visual and design elements of the film, Carol is splendidly written and acted with Haynes carefully controlling the action the whole way through. Phyllis Nagy's script keeps the plot moving at a manageable pace, but it's insightful enough that even when things get slow, there's plenty going on under the surface. The characters in Nagy's script are well drawn out, and yet, there's just enough of a mysterious aura about the principle players. Eventually, that makes the film unpredictable and there are several times where it moves in directions that are completely unexpected. You never quite know what someone is thinking or what they're going to do, and many of the motivations are hidden. But I love how it all amounts to a simple, devastating conclusion that perfectly sums up this whole universe that Haynes has created. On every level, the screenplay serves the film well.

But of course, you'll probably walk away from Carol talking about the performances the most. Even in the immediate aftermath of the film's breakout Cannes premiere, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara's performances were the talk of the town. The two women are practically co-leads, and it's hard to say that either actress gives a better performance than the other. Blanchett has the showier performance (as she always seems to) as the titular character, commanding your attention whenever she bursts onto the screen. For much of the film, Carol is a bit of an enigma- her choices and lifestyle seem odd and there's a cryptic sense about her. But what I love about this film is that there's so much more to Carol than what there initially seems to be. A character that could be very unlikable ends up being a very profound statement.

Mara contrasts Blanchett's charisma with a subtlety and sense of heartache unmatched by most young actresses. Therese is the opposite of Carol in every way, and I love that Blanchett and Mara complement each other so well. And while they may anchor the film, Carol also features an incredibly impressive supporting cast. Kyle Chandler is sensational as Harge Aird, a man who is fighting for his wife back. So much of the movie takes place from the tragic perspective of Carol and Therese that it's incredibly refreshing to see a different viewpoint. Sarah Paulson is remarkable as usual as Abby Gerhard, the former girlfriend of Carol. The Big Short star John Magaro also pops in for a couple of scenes.

Carol is a terrifically executed love story and the way that the romance between Carol and Therese evolves throughout the film is marvelous. But I think the most impressive aspect of Carol is how it fully captures a lost era of both impeccable beauty and social constraint. We live in an age where gay marriage is the norm and acceptance is everywhere. The 1950s didn't think the same way. Carol and Therese exist in a world where everyone is trying to stop their relationship, and that adds a lot of dramatic gravitas to the film at times. It's sorrowful, but the film overcomes it with a love story that is simply engrossing.

Led by two of 2015's best performances from Blanchett and Mara, Carol is a mesmerizing piece of cinema that will put you through the ringer with its tale of love and loss. But in the end, this superbly made film is well worth it. Every single aspect of Carol works to great effect, and it's a shame that the Oscars didn't award this movie with more attention. But forget the Oscars. This is one of the year's best films, a unique tale that will compel you constantly for 118 minutes. See this one for yourself and I don't think you'll be able to shake it any time soon.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                                 (9/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Screen Rant, Joblo

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