17 January 2017

Carol (2015) -- romance in a dark time

Love stories as such aren't usually my kind of movie, but when I read about this one I knew I had to see it.  It didn't disappoint.

Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman in New York city in 1952, has a boyfriend and a sales job in a department store, neither of which much thrill her.  One day shortly before Christmas a rich woman customer in her 40s, Carol (Cate Blanchett) forgets her gloves in the store and Therese returns them.  Carol invites her for lunch as a thank-you, and they hit it off well.  Carol spends more and more time with Therese, gives her gifts, encourages her aspirations as a photographer.  Without homosexuality ever being mentioned, the nature of Carol's attraction, and Therese's growing reciprocation of it, gradually become apparent.

Carol is involved in a divorce battle which is turning ugly over the issue of custody of her daughter.  Her husband, Harge, knows about her lesbian inclinations (she had had at least one previous affair with a woman).  When he finally obtains hard evidence of her relationship with Therese, he has no hesitation about using the bigotry of the time against her in the custody fight.  Though the relationship has grown serious, Carol breaks it off, knowing that it could endanger her future access to her daughter.

I can't overstate how well the film tells its story.  Romantic feelings must be among the most difficult for actors to express convincingly, yet the slow development of the relationship always feels natural, organic, normal, despite our knowing how unusual and potentially dangerous such a courtship would have been in the 1950s (besides the lesbianism, there is a substantial age difference -- in the novel the film was based on, Therese is 19).  The beauty of it contrasts perfectly with the ugly, shabby, sordid traditional morality standing against it.
The film avoids clichés, however.  Everything that happens is the kind of thing that could and did happen in the era in which it's set.  Even Harge is not a cartoonish villain; though he resorts to disgusting tactics, he's trying to do what he thinks is best for his daughter according to the warped and limited standards instilled in him by the culture he grew up in.  Once Carol goes for broke and appeals to him not to make things ugly because their daughter would suffer, he sees the light -- enough to give her an acceptable settlement, anyway.

Another cliché the film avoids is the obligatory tragic ending which plagues so many gay relationship movies.  An "ordinary" movie would have ended with the break-up, leaving both women bereft and miserable.  Here, after the divorce is settled, Carol gets up the courage to ask Therese to take her back, and in the last moments it's clear that she does.

Realistically, of course, in the 1950s their relationship would have faced continuous threats from the surrounding society, having to be concealed or risk harsh hostility and perhaps even attack by the laws of the time.  Some activists even today treat social issues as peripheral, deeming only economic change to be important, but they couldn't be more wrong.  When religious taboo "morality" reigned unopposed, it caused immense misery and deprivation.  Carol was popular with gay viewers for breaking with cliché and having a happy ending, but it shows how much times have changed that, by 2015, the filmmakers knew the story deserved a happy ending.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

Thanks for the review. I look forward to seeing this film.

When I was in junior high school [mid-sixties], we had two women who taught two different subjects, English and history. I had both of them for teachers. Everyone knew they shared an apartment near the school and that they were "very close friends." I don't know how we students came to understand what "close friends" meant in those days when referring to two unmarried women living together, but we did and there was no shock or revulsion attached to it. A bit of snickering, we were, after all, still children. I remember mentioning this to my parents -- the "close friends" who shared living quarters, but they never said anything to me about it; and as far as I know, never mentioned it to my friends' parents. Looking back on that time, I find it amazing that some sort of scandal didn't come from the junior high students knowing this. Perhaps I just lived in a community that didn't find this morally repugnant? Mostly Protestants, Catholics, and a small population of Jewish people. I don't know. But the two women continued to teach and eventually they retired and lived out the rest of their lives in our community, unmolested by threats or hostilities.

18 January, 2017 09:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Interesting that there were areas of tolerance that far back. Perhaps even though gay liberation didn't really get going until the seventies, it may be that the freer sexual ethos of the sixties (which did, after all, arise partly in reaction against the highly repressive fifties) extended that far in some cases.

18 January, 2017 17:22  
Blogger Holte Ender said...

Hi Infidel, long time no speak. Hope you are well.

I’m a sucker for a good love story, and that’s what Carol is. The characters were so rich, I almost knew them.

10 January, 2018 19:06  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I felt the same way. It's a terrific film.

11 January, 2018 03:53  

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