I’m not alone in rating her the best actress in the world. Or as some would prefer to say, the best female actor in the world. Or more precisely, the best female English-speaking screen actor working in mainstream cinema. And yes, I’m talking about our Cate – up there with Garbo, Hepburn, Streep, destined for legendhood (if I may use that word) – and currently starring in Carol, an absorbing romantic drama directed by Todd Haynes.
She’s in her usual impeccable form. A critic once said that Cate Blanchett has “the kind of beauty – svelte, ravaged, angular, irresistible on screen – that combines sternness with vulnerability … acutely sensitive, finely nuanced, every twitch and head toss perfectly judged.” Who wrote that? Well, I did, actually – reviewing Rowan Woods’ 2005 film Little Fish, in which Blanchett starred with Hugo Weaving. Her performance was the best thing in the film. Indeed, every one of her films seems to demonstrate some new aspect of her power and versatility. A couple of years after Little Fish, in which she played a reformed junkie in Sydney’s western suburbs, she turned up with a cultivated English accent to reprise her role as the first Queen Elizabeth and won an Oscar. And she’s won a string of Oscars, Globes and similar baubles since.
But to say that she’s best thing going in Carol may be a little unfair to Rooney Mara, who plays Therese, Carol’s lesbian lover. Mara won an Oscar nomination for her performance, with Blanchett conspicuously passed over, probably on the grounds that she’d won more than her fair share already. And speaking of fairness, why is the film called Carol and not Carol and Therese? The characters have equal weight, the performances are comparably fine. It’s as if Thelma & Louise, Hollywood’s last great all-girl romantic escapade, had been called Thelma, or if someone had made a film of Romeo and Juliet and called it Romeo. I could go on, but it’s time to get serious.
Haynes’s beautiful and sombre film is drawn from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt, from which Phyllis Nagy has adapted the screenplay. By all accounts, Highsmith based the character of Therese Belivet on herself, after an affair she had with a woman in 1948 while working at Bloomingdale’s department store in New York. Carol is set in New York in 1952 (Eisenhower has just been elected) and, as in all the best period adaptations, no relevant background detail is forgotten or out of place. Gleaming Packards cruise the streets, gas stoves are lit with matches.Haynes’s last film, the excellent Far From Heaven, was another story of illicit love set in the 1950s, in which a middle-class suburban housewife has an affair with her African-American gardener. Carol is the better film, and the more daring. Lesbian love is still a no-no for the big studios, and I think I’m right in saying that this is Blanchett’s first venture into full-on sexual passion. Certain male admirers may also be interested to note that it’s the first film in which she gets her gear off, though unlike her great contemporary, Nicole Kidman, in Eyes Wide Shut,s he doesn’t give us the full Monty.(Sorry about that.)
Carol has been through a difficult divorce from her thoroughly unlikeable husband (Kyle Chandler), and Therese, an aspiring photographer, is coping with a devoted boyfriend (Jake Lacy), whom she doesn’t much care for. The women meet by chance in the toy department of a store called Frankenberg’s (real name?), and are reunited when Therese discovers a pair of Carol’s gloves left (accidentally?) on the counter and mails them back to her. The progress of their doomed affair is chartered with a depth and sensitivity wholly in character with the social constraints and polite inhibitions of the time – routine courtesies become sympathetic gestures, then something more serious, the lightest touch of a hand on another’s shoulder conveying a lingering erotic charge.
At just under two hours it’s a bit too long, considering that little actually happens and what does happen is largely predictable. There’s a violent twist about three-quarters of the way through which seems oddly jarring at the time but delivers some much-needed dramatic impetus. In its miserable way Carol is a wonderful and truthful work, superbly shot in the best Fifities tradition on 16mm stock by Edward Lachman. The ambience of the time is charmingly recaptured, though someone should have told Todd Haynes that respectable gentlemen never wore beards in those days, no one could take photographs in available light indoors without a flashlight, and that someone as rich as Carol could surely afford to have her piano tuned. According to my life’s companion, “It sounded terrible.” But I suppose that even the best pearls have some minor irritations.
Carol, rated M, is showing in selected cinemas nationally. Three and a half stars.
Evan Williams has reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.