Is ‘Carol’ THE Christmas film of 2015?
It’s difficult to gauge what makes a “classic” Christmas film. Box office doesn’t always come in to it. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life tanked with post-war audiences – who found it a little bleak – but became a family favourite via TV screenings in the 1950s and ’60s. The first two Die Hard movies may not seem like the most festive of fare, but thanks to their Yuletide settings you can now buy John McLane-inspired Christmas jumpers.
Some movies that we may associate with Christmas (The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music) have nothing to do with the season, while others that do (Batman Returns, The French Connection) just don’t quite have that mulled wine, Quality Street and posh peanuts vibe we’re going for.
Into this eclectic quasi-genre of films comes Carol, the latest from director Todd Haynes. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, it tells the story of Therese and Carol, two women separated significantly by both social class and age who enter into a romance after meeting over the counter of a New York departure store in the winter of 1951.
I say “significantly”, because these differences play an important part in how that romance plays out. Carol is a socialite with a sprawling mansion in New Jersey, while Therese is a “shop girl” (as Carol’s husband calls her) living in a chilly Manhattan apartment. Carol, though married, has had previous relationships with women – including her best friend Abby – while Therese is new to the very idea that she may find other women attractive.
Their love affair plays out against the backdrop of Christmas and the New Year, and the eve of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inauguration as President of the United States. The feeling is very much one of change, of transition from one world – represented by Carol’s stoic, well-to-do in-laws – to another, embodied by Therese’s young, proto-Beatnik friends in New York.
While Haynes cites David Lean’s Brief Encounter as a major influence, Carol isn’t a work of obvious pastiche in the way that his 2002 film Far From Heaven, so clearly was. While Far From Heaven matched the saturated palette and heightened emotions of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas beat for beat, Carol offers something more understated and contemporary. The score, by frequent Coen Bros. collaborator Carter Burwell, is gorgeous, with occasional nods to Philip Glass at his most melancholic, while Edward Lachman’s stunning cinematography owes more to the work of Saul Leiter – with its frequent reflections and distortions through windows and mirrors – than garish 1950s Technicolor.
Considering that screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s background is in theatre, and that playwrights traditionally tend to fill their screenplays with gallons of terribly witty dialogue, the script is admirably sparse, trusting in the performances of its two leads to deliver all the emotion when it’s needed, and boy… is this an emotional film.
In the title role Cate Blanchett delivers what may well be a career-best performance, her brittlety reminding me of that great Bette Lynch line about her smile being “a lid on a scream”. There’s something cold and abrasive about her character, and through her friendship with Abby (Sarah Paulson) we have the impression she can be cold and even cruel, but beneath that immaculately quaffed and lipsticked veneer there’s a great deal of vulnerability.
As Therese, Rooney Mara is positively Audrey Hepburnesque. Now, part of this is down to costume, make-up and hair, all of which I’m sure were conscious creative choices, but she also has that same instantly endearing quality, that – despite the film’s title – helps to make her character’s story the film’s major emotional arc.
To give away much more than this would be to spoil what is surely one of 2015’s best films, and certainly one of the best romantic movies we’ve seen in years. Suffice to say, this blogger had to take a moment to compose himself as the end credits rolled, and left the cinema feeling substantially more “Christmassy” than when he entered it, which is why I can see it becoming something of a festive favourite in the years to come.
Carol is in cinemas now.