Great direction and performances can’t elevate Carol beyond its aesthetic

carol cate blanchett rooney maraTodd Haynes interests me as a filmmaker.  I saw Far From Heaven in 2002 based on its critical acclaim, but I still haven’t seen any of the Douglas Sirk melodramas Haynes supposedly pays homage to.  In the DGA’s always great podcast “The Director’s Cut,” Haynes talks about how had Carol been made in the 1950s, it would have been a cautionary tale where the morally compromised characters are “punished” for their social transgressions; the Carol made in 2015 is clearly free to tell the story without these Hays code-esque restrictions.  So while I don’t have the context that more dedicated fans of his might have, it doesn’t seem to matter.  Because while it’s interesting to see a film that looks like it was made 60 years ago infused with modern sensibilities, it’s not exactly moving.

Haynes ensures Carol is never boring to look at.  He and DP Edward Lachman shoot multiple scenes with tons of foreground elements – door and window frames, reflective or rain-soaked glass, and several complex scenes with dozens of extras.  Besides being visually engaging, they do add something to the theme of the film, presenting the characters’ layers and obstacles as physical rather than societal.  (One of Hayes’ favorite scenes, the almost psychedelic pattern of lights in the Lincoln tunnel, is also one of mine.)  I also love the decision to shoot on 16mm.  Combined with color grading that makes all the wrong colors pop – rusty oranges and bright fuscias – in the way they do in photos from the 1950s, the effect is stunning.  (If you’re interested in the technical details, Oliver Peters at Creative Planet Network has a great article featuring the editor, DP, and colorist describing their choices.)  It’s clearly not by accident, as Haynes puts together “look books” for his films.  Even something about Rooney Mara’s line readings sounds slightly old fashioned, although I could never put my finger on it.

Speaking of Mara, she and Cate Blanchett are both fantastic.  I agree with The AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo that the hubbub over which Oscar they should have been up for misses the point – their two performances are essentially one ensemble performance, and each is best when playing off the other.  Their scenes are a masters’ class in non-verbal acting: each adjustment in posture, each change in eye line, each subtle bit of character business tells more of the story than their dialogue – and my hat goes off to Haynes and Mara for communicating that a young character is drinking a martini for the first time . . . without using a spit take.  Fans of Friday Night Lights, however, may find it challenging to see Kyle Chandler in a decidedly non-Coach Taylor-like role; at least my wife did.

But despite great direction and performances, Carol leaves me a little flat.  Even the masterful dinner scene that opens and closes the film (cribbed from Brief Encounter – which I embarrassingly STILL haven’t seen – in that it’s played the first time without context, allowing the audience to interpret the dynamic, and the second with the weight of the plot behind it) is more compelling from a technical point of view than an emotional one.

In the end, Haynes has created a film that recreates the look and feel of the 1950s, but his focus on that aesthetic comes at the expense of the narrative.  Just like the dinner scene, he seems to be relying on the audience to supply the context.

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