It’s good to be reminded of why we said goodbye to all that in the 1950s. When advertising had women appear in high heels and tailored dresses to sell washing machines and vacuum cleaners, and the term gender equality scarcely existed. Although the decade is a byword for repression in western culture, it must have been more complex than that during the time that saw the birth of rock’n’roll.
So director Todd Haynes is on the money in his new movie, exploring the churn beneath the surface when homosexual relations were illegal. In this story based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel of 1952, two women embark on an affair but social expectations eventually cruel their happiness and fulfilment.
The women are so different, but both are cool on marriage. Carol (Cate Blanchett), is an aloof wealthy woman who is divorcing her husband, and young Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store sales clerk, not at all sure about accepting her boyfriend’s proposal and without much clue yet about what she wants. In their different ways, resisting or escaping, they are pushing back on marriage.
As an openly gay man, Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There.) would be interested in the climate that led to today’s gay rights movements and perhaps also not entirely disinterested, as he showed in Far From Heaven, in observing the fractures and contradictions of heterosexual partnerships. With this tale of a love that once dared not speak its name, how well has he managed?
Great choice of actors. Mara, without a hint of the oomph on display in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a resolutely demure, doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn type. Blanchett, who confirmed in I’m Not There she can do anything, plays it cool and predatory and not hugely sympathetic. With a bit too much posturing and hair flicking in the mode of Hollywood’s great screen vamps, I think. And, as if the red talons didn’t make the point already, there is a brief and distracting clip of Gloria Swanson, the ultimate aging vamp in Sunset Boulevard.
The women’s eyes meet across a busy toy department. Does anyone think of sex at Christmas shopping for their kids? Anyway, so begins the long journey towards each other, before they take off on the road and finally sleep together. As need and commitment see-saws between them, choices inevitably have to be made. It is of course a timeless love story.
The romance is expressed in the most beautiful cinematic language, and on celluloid too, it’s worth noting. So gorgeous that it is easy to be diverted by the ‘look’ created by cinematographer Ed Lachman. The images float past as the camera rounds the curve of marble on the corner of a building, as it swoons before Carol’s mink coat and red cloche outfit and that draped chocolate brown number. And there are exquisite long shots of Carol and Therese reflected in mirrors and framed through windows and doors as they meet in public spaces.
We are in for the slow burn but there’s plenty of time. A contemporary director for once in no hurry to get his two romantic leads into bed together. That’s OK, and true to the times for all I know, but it doesn’t explain why this romantic liaison has so little tension and passionate urgency about it. Desire just hasn’t found compelling expression here. The cowboy lovers in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain were so much more convincing.
Why so? We know that Blanchett and Mara, are totally marvellous. All that attention to period detail and the glories of celluloid (Carol was shot on super 16 mm) and self-conscious cinematic awareness but the actors seem smothered by those exquisite surfaces, or the direction, and unable to throw themselves into their roles. It’s a very beautiful and delicate, but somewhat suffocating experience.