What it’s about:
It’s been suggested that the adulterous affair in Brief Encounter, Noel Coward’s excellent 1945 movie starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, is actually a stand in for his own experience as a homosexual, which, of course, could not be portrayed directly in 1945. Today, however, there are no such barriers, and with Carol Todd Haynes has basically created an homage to Brief Encounter, except the affair this time is a bit of a May/December romance between two women.
Like Brief Encounter, Carol is told through flashback. If this device along with the theme of forbidden love is not enough to evoke Noel Coward’s film, the scene where the two meet after a short, but painful hiatus surely will. In it, Cate Blanchett’s character, Carol, asks Rooney Mara’s character, Theresa, to meet in a restaurant in hope of resuming their relationship. Theresa agrees; however, their conversation is interrupted by a male friend who has spotted Theresa from across the room. Brief Encounter fans will think immediately of Dolly Messiter’s intrusion upon Laura and Alec. And as in that earlier scene, Carol, getting up to leave, pauses just long enough to lightly squeeze Theresa’s shoulder.
What I liked about it:
Everything about the film is gorgeous. Rooney Mara looks like Audrey Hepburn, and Cate Blanchett could hold her own against any glamour star from Hollywood’s golden age. Several scenes could be straight from a Hopper print, and the film captures 1950’s New York perfectly. Moreover, photography and voyeurism are themselves explored as themes in the film. Theresa and Carol are often shown watching one another from afar through windows. Theresa herself is a photographer, and of course there is also the movie camera and our own voyeuristic role as audience members. In all cases, the separation and distance introduced by the lens encourages an objectification that is both limiting and liberating.
What I didn’t like about it:
It’s not so much that I didn’t like it as I simply didn’t understand why the film is called Carol when the story clearly is Theresa’s. More significantly though, I do think the film lacks sufficient tension. Carol has at least two things going for it over Brief Encounter in this regard. It has a gun, and in Harge, Carol’s husband, it has an antagonist. Brief Encounter had neither of these, and yet somehow it remains the more engaging of the two. The difference is that Laura and Alec experience a great deal of inner conflict and turmoil over the circumstances of their affair, and this conflict drives the story. Carol and Theresa do not. I’m not suggesting that two women having an affair in the 1950s must necessarily be shown as guilt ridden. But some central conflict does have to drive the story from beginning to end. Carol comes up a bit short in that department. Still very much worth watching though.