The praise critics have showered on Todd Haynes’s CAROL gives me pause. Have I seen an entirely different film or is there something in this one that escapes me? A. O. Scott of the N.Y. Times sees CAROL as “fetishistically precise in its recreation of the look and sound of the past.” Sorry, but the fingernails with their bright red polish, the lips with their bright red lipstick, the precisely-coiffed heads, women wearing high heels to do their housework, non-stop cigarette smoking, cars and New York street scene reconstructed in a hundred films and certainly much better in the slightly later period “Mad Men” add up to an empty fifties period piece, nothing else. GONE WITH THE WIND recreates the Civil War era and any Abel Gance film recreates the Napoleonic wars, as far as people like you and me who have not been there can tell. But here? Nothing.
Same with the acting. The Washington Post’s Anne Hornaday describes CAROL “as an almost perverse exercise in exquisite taste and masklike performance.” “Masklike performance” applies well to a cast that gives us nothing but uniformly bland faces. Cate Blanchett, not the most vivacious in her best days, has never been so absent. As for Rooney Mara who, despite a valiant effort, utterly fails to channel Audrey Hepburn—as anyone would—and all the male protagonists wear one single expression throughout. I could have wept at imagining what someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman would have done with the part of Harge, the husband, here impersonated most woodenly by Kyle Chandler.
I have not read the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the script is based. A revered author, to be sure, whose writing here must have beautifully conveyed layers of unspoken feelings but which doesn’t translate well to the screen in this telling. What can we understand of characters who hardly say a word and express themselves only through knowing glances and half-smiles?
I found CAROL to be such a cinematic problem that I have to assume its success is only due to the treatment of the difficulty of lesbianism at a time when society saw it as a totally unacceptable moral perversion. So, are we again victims of the pervasive political correctness that has overtaken our lives? Excellent films, such as “The Imitation Game,” on the life of Alan Turing have treated the subject of homosexuality in difficult times come to mind. CAROL is not one of them.