This is a quite magnificent exploration of sexual awakening unlike anything I’ve ever seen and directed with such a firmness of hand as to be an immediate contender for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. Fans of MTV series Mildred Pierce will see some similarities, but this is period moviemaking on a peerless scale.
Every second of screen time has a period detail that takes your breath away, so assume an Oscar will also be heading the way of Judy Becker (Design) and Jesse Rosenthal (Art Direction) as well as Sandy Powell’s costumes. Honestly, it makes Mad Men look heavy handed. That may in part be down to the gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman (Virgin Suicides). The music by Carter Burwell will also be in the mix come judgement day. So that’s six Oscars before we even get to the main talking point.
So; Rooney Mara or Cate Blanchett?
This movie is like watching the equivalent of the Rumble in the Jungle – the two greatest boxers of their generation, one on the ascent, the other at the peak of their powers – so too here. Marra the lady in waiting, Blanchett at a dizzying career high after last year’s electrifying Blue Jasmine performance.
As the title character you would expect her to dominate the proceedings but that wholly underestimates the abilities of Rooney Mara who often, and tantalisingly, is a doppelgänger for Audrey Hepburn. Consequently Haynes and Lachman are compelled to hold the camera, long and sure on her utterly beguiling features. Blanchett, by contrast, can only be described as both handsome and regal.
So, the story unfolds as an elder socialite, Carol, totally disgusted with her affluent but corporate married life, and a dark past as a – whisper it because the word could not be uttered in McCarthy’s 1950’s USA – lesbian, sets eye on the virginal Mara in a pre-Christmas department store. The impact on both is immediate. The sexual tension starts from that very first moment and builds and builds until finally consummated in a Motel room in the midst of a Thelma and Louise-esque road trip (albeit one that’s driven at a much slower pace).
This ‘forbidden’ love comes with significant baggage; Blanchett’s estranged husband spots it soon enough and uses their 4 year old daughter as a ransom for her to return to the familial home. This destroys Blanchett and makes the illicit relationship impossible to maintain.
It’s a beautiful celebration of love; what little sex the film contains – with an OTT BBFC statement that it contains infrequent strong sex – is both tasteful and genuinely loving.
Really it’s hard to unpick the complex and symbiotic relationship that these two women have forged on screen. One performance could not exist without the other and it is to Haynes’ extreme credit that he keeps a hold on it all and guides it effortlessly into the land of classic cinema.
Go see it before it’s too late.