Who knew that adding lesbians to a romantic period piece would do surprisingly little for the movie as a whole?
One of 2015’s critically praised films, you may have been surprised to see this movie was absent from my Best of 2015 list. This was not an oversight, it was a deliberate choice on my part because I’ve got problems with this movie that hold it back from being anything to highly recommend. Mostly because it lacks anything memorable about it.
This is an adaptation of a novel called The Price of Salt (don’t ask) by Patricia Highsmith, author of some great psychological thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. This book however, is less thriller and more autobiographical take on a similar episode in the author’s life. We have Cate Blanchett as the titular Carol, a soon-to-be-divorced woman living in New York City chatting up with Therese, played by Rooney Mara, in a department store. While they make friendly small talk, Carol ends up inviting Therese for lunch, then over to her luxurious home, and then on a cross country roadtrip…all in the space of about a week. Yeah, this is no instantaneous friendship, something is clearly going on between these two.
It’s just a shame the movie pisses about for it’s two hour run time when it comes to Carol and Therese’s relationship. I was with the movie for the first thirty or so minutes appreciating it was taking its time to set up a tender relationship between the two, when I realized that neither character was particularly well developed. Therese is a hat, a young cipher, for the audience to follow and to be seduced by the much more experienced and mature Carol. Therese shows fuck all initiative, personality, or purpose that I really could not connect with her.
This is through no fault of Rooney Mara, mind you. She’s a fine actress and when the script demands an emotional out pour from her, she delivers admirably. But for the rest of the script, she’s a blank fucking slate. Now, I get the filmmakers were trying to emulate the style of the 1952 novel, which I’m sure was unique in presenting a lesbian relationship at the time through the eyes of someone experiencing the feeling for the first time; but in the 2010s, it feels hollow. We connect with romances that give us unique personalities for both leads be they heterosexual (Love and Other Drugs) or homosexual (Brokeback Mountain). And Therese is just strung along from scene to scene by Carol, so we don’t really give a shit about her.
Carol, mercifully, has a bit more going on. While she’s in the midst of a divorce with her neglectful but curiously possessive husband (played by Kyle Chandler), she decides to seduce this young checkout girl in hopes of connecting emotionally and physically with someone. There’s dimension and shit going on with her, so it stood to reason the movie should have been about her completely. But we keep going back to Therese’s life be it with her ambivalent feelings to her boyfriend who wants to get married or boyfriend’s buddy who tried to fool around with Therese. The movie is sharing two stories and only one of them is interesting, the other brings the experience as a whole down.
Blanchett as Carol is nonetheless giving a great performance. It’s far more pronounced towards the end when the film finally injects some stakes in the proceedings (more on that in a bit). Blanchett has some enigmatic screen presence that you can’t help but feel drawn to her be you a man or a woman, which makes it far more disappointing that the script doesn’t give her a whole lot to do. She shows some tendeness towards her only daughter and a complicated relationship with her soon-to-be ex-husband, but this all happens in the beginning.
For half of the movie, we have Carol and Therese’s long, boring road trip and you simply don’t feel a spark between the two. You know Carol is spitting out some mad game, but Therese is basically a puppy following her along but has fuck all in common with Carol. Carol is a straight up player pretty much preying on a much more inexperienced girl. It goes on like this before they finally consummate their relationship. It just takes way too long to get there, so your mind is wandering by the time the relationship climaxes.
So if the relationship itself was taking forever to build up, it becomes doubly disappointing there is really nothing special about it being between two lesbians whatsoever. See in Brokeback Mountain, the film wastes no time in giving you two characters with distinct personalities who deliberately begin a very physical relationship but they have to deal with the societal pressures on them and even their chosen professions as cowboys. There is a big risk to these two guys being gay at the time of the movie, so you recognize the stakes they were dealing with. Carol fails to give you any stakes until the last thirty minutes when Carol’s husband is trying to use evidence of her lesbian relationship as a moral delinquency to gain sole custody of their daughter.
While this is a big threat to deal with, the daughter was out of this movie for such a long part that I didn’t give a shit when the film brings it up. Carol clearly didn’t seem to care about her daughter when she took the road trip with Therese, so why the hell should I? It’s all pretty clumsy if you ask me, and it felt added in to wake your ass up when the movie was running out of American scenery to drive by.
While I have no doubt Cate Blanchett will win the Oscar for Best Actress for this role, it still feels significantly undeserved. Compared to Brie Larson in Room, this is a weaker performance. But Blanchett is due according to the Academy’s crotchety old man membership, so she’ll likely still win.
I admit that she gave a fine performance, but it felt like watching a lone diamond in a sea of toilet paper. Everything around her performance isn’t that special and really doesn’t work as an interesting movie. While I’ve given Matinees to fine performances in mediocre films, those had great ensembles for you to check out. This movie only has one standout performance, and for that I’m going to give this a high…