The Eighth Day of Christmas: Carol
Todd Haynes is a fascinating filmmaker. A modern-day auteur, his works are not quite art-house, but tend to be more high-brow and/or experimental than typical Oscar fare. In this niche, where he has creative freedom, yet relatively familiar narrative structures and decent budgets to work with, and alongside his passion for making queer cinema, he has carved out a distinct filmography, from [Safe] (1995), through the more experimental Velvet Goldmine (1998) and I’m Not There (2007), to his recent Dark Waters (2019). Carol (2015), Haynes’s version of a Christmas film, leans towards the more conventional side of his filmography, though it is still a stimulating work of cinema.
Taking a very different tack from Last Christmas’s (Paul Feig, 2019) present-day London romance, Carol is a 1950s forbidden lesbian love story set in New York, where simple shop-girl Therese (Rooney Mara) falls for well-off society woman Carol (Cate Blanchett), and the two spend a few days travelling together while Carol’s estranged husband and daughter are away for Christmas. A word of warning here, the gifts of this film are very different from a more typical romance such as Last Christmas. Whereas Feig’s film draws us in and attempts to emotionally manipulate us to feel with the characters, Haynes, throughout his body of work keeps an emotional distance. Thus, Carol is slow and purposeful, the characters stoic (in the case of Carol) or too emotionally stunted to demonstrate great acts of love (in the case of Therese). Something I have often found with Haynes’s work is that, although the experience of actually watching one of his films lacks thrills, it is in their aftermath where their true power lies, and the way they provoke thoughts long after the screen has faded to black. I can only hope that this will be the case with Carol, too, because if you are looking for two hours of escapism or pure entertainment, this is not the film for you.
That being said, the performances in Carol are excellent all round and do keep you captivated throughout its runtime. Cate Blanchett is just superb in the title role, visually striking with her blonde hair and commanding aura; strong and confident, with just a few hints at her vulnerability. Rooney Mara is as plain and forgettable as she always is, and yet in Carol that somehow only better plays into her unassuming, innocent role. The main supporting cast is great, too, with the ever-brilliant Sarah Paulson, and Kyle Chandler, a man whose name you probably don’t know and whose face you might just about recognise, but who has all the charisma and good looks of a Mark Wahlberg or a Matt Damon, and who I am surprised hasn’t had more leading man roles in Hollywood. These four performers carry the film whenever it starts to drag or lose its way, and inject it with the humanity that Haynes’s style lacks.
Though I have billed this as ‘Haynes’s Christmas movie’, truth be told, Christmas acts as more of a backdrop rather than being the central basis of Carol, and, if we were to engage in simplistic squabbles, it would be hard to argue that it is not simply a ‘film set at Christmas’ rather than a ‘Christmas film’. What matters more, though, is the values it espouses. It is interesting that Carol prominently features a breakage of the traditional family, lesbianism disrupting nuclear family life, no matter how much money Carol spends on the train set she buys for her daughter to try and show her love. Nevertheless, as Therese seeks out Carol in the film’s final moments, and the titular character gives a secret, subtle smile direct to camera, we know that there is hope of love and freedom and magic in a conservative world, and isn’t that what Christmas is really all about?
At time of writing, Carol is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.