(Minor Spoilers Below)
Carol is the best film of 2015.
I say that without a hint of hesitation or doubt. 2015 was a wonderful year for movies and I would say that there were at least 20 film released that I would call great. And, out of those 20, Carol is the best.
Carol opens in 1952. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is young, lonely, and living in New York City. She’s an aspiring photographer who can’t afford a decent camera, a secret bohemian living in a world where morality and culture are defined by the bourgeoisie. She has a boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacey) and he’s eager to marry her and move to France but, try as she might, Therese simply cannot bring herself to feel the same way about him that he feels about her. Though she lives with him, she refuses to have sex with him. At one point, she asks him if he’s ever heard of men being attracted to other men and she asks if he thinks the same can be true of women. Richard says sure, before adding that it’s always the result of “something wrong” psychologically.
It’s Christmas. Therese gets a temporary job, working at a department store in Manhattan. From the moment we see Therese surrounded by the Christmas crowds, we realize that she feels totally out-of-place among the rest of the world. She is withdrawn and quiet and rarely looks anyone in the eye. That is until she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett).
Carol is searching for a gift for her daughter and accidentally leaves her gloves behind at the store. When Therese arranges for the gloves to be returned to Carol, Carol thanks her by taking her out to lunch. Soon, Carol is inviting Therese to spend Christmas at her house in New Jersey and a jealous Richard is complaining that Therese has a “crush” on the older woman.
Carol is going through a difficult divorce. Her alcoholic husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is demanding full custody of their children. Harge knows that years ago, Carol had a brief affair with her best friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), and he can’t handle it. When he stops by, drunk and belligerent, on Christmas, he discovers Therese visiting Carol and he freaks out even more.
(With all the attention being paid to the exquisite performances of Blanchett and Mara, now would be good place to mention that Kyle Chandler does a great job playing a loathsome character. With his performance here and his role in The Spectacular Now, Chandler has cornered the market on playing abusive alcoholics.)
For New Year’s, Carol and Therese go on a trip and they finally consummate their relationship (in Iowa, of all places). But what they don’t know is that Harge has hired men to follow them and to get proof of their relationship. If Carol wants to see her daughter again, she knows that it means seeing a psychotherapist for help with her “problem” and never seeing Therese again…
Carol is an amazing and beautiful film, a portrait of both forbidden love and the struggle to survive in a society that demands total and complete conformity. In many scenes, director Todd Haynes pays homage to the masters of 50s melodrama, filmmakers like Mark Robson, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. The film’s lushly vibrant colors and attention to detail feels reminiscent of the films that Sirk made for MGM, with Cate Blanchett often made up to resemble Lana Turner. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara often resembles Natalie Wood from Rebel Without A Cause. One shot in particular, with the shadows of a window bar falling across Blanchett’s face like the bars of a prison cell, immediately brought to mind the end of Ray’s Bigger Than Life.
For the longest time, I have complained about Rooney Mara’s performance in David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Well, I’m prepared to stop complaining because Mara is brilliant in Carol. Her blossoming as an actress mirrors Therese’s blossoming as a woman. Rooney Mara is being promoted for best supporting actress but make no mistake. There’s nothing “supporting” about Rooney Mara’s performance. Carol is all about Therese and it works because of Mara’s wonderful performance.
Regardless of what may or may not happen with the Oscar nominations on Thursday, Carol is the best film of 2015. It’s a film that we will still be talking about decades from now.