CAROL (2015, Todd Haynes)
David Lean’s masterful 1945 romantic drama BRIEF ENCOUNTER begins and ends with the same scene — the lead woman planning to meet her secret lover in a café, but interrupted by an acquaintance — yet the way in which it’s recontextualized the second time adds a layer of gravitas and aching meaning that puts the entire story into focus.
Todd Haynes’s new film CAROL quotes Lean heavily, including the framing device of beginning and (almost) ending with the same scene: Carol meeting Therese in a café, but being interrupted by an acquaintance — yet the recontextualizing at the end doesn’t have quite the same impact. For one, Haynes is so good at putting the camera exactly where it needs to be, and having his actors perform perfectly, that we know what’s going on the first time around. When Carol puts her hand on Therese’s shoulder, the gesture just aches. When Therese’s male friend puts his hand on her other shoulder just a few seconds later, there’s nothing.
This sequence is both beautifully subtle (the dialogue isn’t expository and the emotions are under the surface) and glaringly un-subtle: the camera reveals everything the characters are striving to hide. And when he works in this mode (cf. FAR FROM HEAVEN and MILDRED PIERCE), Haynes tosses visual subtlety out the window. There’s no place for it in melodrama, is there? Even Carter Burwell’s sumptuous, graceful score is a heavy-handed undercurrent lining each scene with a bold stroke. Whether this works for you or not is a matter of taste, but I found it quite moving.
There are times when the heavy-handedness starts to wear, however, such as the emphasis on “Morality clause!” situations, and in clichéd scenes like the drunken ex-husband getting in a shouting match (though Kyle Chandler is quite good at being a disgusting, cowardly boor). But even when you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, you’ve never seen it done quite this exquisitely. Rooney Mara is tremendous, perfectly cast with an almost anachronistically current and youthful appearance, and handling her role with nuance and dimension. Blanchett has done this sort of thing before (the wealthy-but-troubled American society woman) — not just recently in BLUE JASMINE, but in another Highsmith adaptation about the curse of being gay in the 1950s, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY — but this may be as honest and believable as she’s been. Yes, both RIPLEY and BRIEF ENCOUNTER are better films, and Haynes has done better himself (SAFE), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a genre picture as elegant — and intelligent — as CAROL.