The opening scene of Carol sees a man enter a hotel bar, order a drink and exchange a few words with the barman, the camera pans and we are aware of two women taking tea. Soon afterwards the man interrupts them and one of the women gets up to leave, as she does she gives the second woman’s shoulder a light squeeze, lingering as she removes her hand. My little brain starts ticking in the cinema – I know this, I think and then it hits me. In the opening scene of Brief Encounter we enter a busy station coffee shop, as the camera pans we see a man and woman taking tea. Soon afterwards they are interrupted and as the man gets up to leave, he gives the woman’s shoulder a light but firm squeeze.
In both Brief Encounter and Carol, you jump back through the timeline and return at the close to this scene, seeing the same movements, the same looks, the same shoulder squeeze, but with a totally different view. Wonderful stuff.
David Lean’s Brief Encounter was filmed and set in the 40’s and while the plot (the power of two people with a connection they shouldn’t have) and many of the emotions are timeless, it is firmly rooted in the era and terribly, terribly British. With a modern eye we just want Celia Johnson’s Laura to say ‘Oh SHUT UP’ to Dolly and run after Alec at the end, society and convention be damned. In Carol, I know we’re almost a decade later and in the US of A and this time only one of our star crossed lovers is married (and divorcing), but you can’t help but applaud when Rooney Mara’s Therese just packs a bag and gets in the car with the intoxicating Carol. Hell I would, it’s Cate Blanchett being absolutely stunning. Therese’s beau at one point says ‘You’ve just got a crush’. Well it may be a crush but we’ve all got one. I’ve had one on Cate since 1998 when I saw Elizabeth, she can makes my heart beat faster when she’s on screen and leaves me a touch breathless, but anyway…
If Brief Encounter is stuck in the 40’s, Carol felt timeless in every way. They managed to make it period 50’s perfect (the clothes, the cars, the cigarettes!) but without the soft focus or ‘clean’ feel that often dominates modern film making when setting films in the past. The use of 16mm film helps, but the attention to detail and the locations just made you feel you’d stepped into the TARDIS and out into 50’s New York rather than looking back at at a ‘quaint’ time. Todd Haynes framing makes us feel rather voyeuristic (a clever and deliberate choice that is understood when a certain event happens in the film) using car doors to peer around, filming from outside the window to watch a brightly lit party, lingering back and framing a scene through a door before getting closer. The effect is rather unnerving, more than once you feel as if you are following a character and should be ready to leap behind a car or into a doorway if they turn. This style builds a slightly nervous tension in the viewer, for me it was the ‘butterfly feeling’ of when you have a crush on someone, when you first start seeing someone and know it’s going somewhere, the nervous excitement of lust as it dips its toes into love.
Laura’s voice-over dominates Brief Encounter, we know exactly what she’s thinking all the way through. In Carol we have to rely on Blanchett and Mara’s performances alone. The chemistry between the two leads is astonishing, you can see in every scene the inner monologue, every motivation and every decision has been thought out and is clearly articulated in a word, a gesture and missed embrace. Therese is easier to figure out (not that Mara has an easy job and arguably has the longer journey to travel as a character) but we can identify with her ‘coming of age’ story, her exploration of who she is as a person, what she likes to drink ‘wine makes me feel naughty, in a good way’ and if she wants to seize life or just drift through on the safe path. Carol is more complex, is there something unnerving or untrustworthy about her you wonder, but this feeling is in sharp juxtaposition with Carol as a mother, the relationship is written and performed perfectly without being schmultzy, an easy trap to fall into.
The supporting cast are very much on the periphery of the central relationship, but are used to great effect and all feel full and realised. Jake Lacy as Richard, Therese’s incredulous but strangely understanding boyfriend ‘What? You’ve got one hell of a crush on this woman is what…’ and Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s seemingly stereotypical, bullish 50’s husband, are both excellent. Chandler’s performance avoids the stereotype by allowing the character’s motivations to be driven by bewilderment rather than nastiness. A word too for Sarah Paulson as Carol’s closest friend Abby, Paulson does so much with very little screen-time, her scene with Harge at the door was so powerful. More Sarah Paulson, please Hollywood.
Blanchett doesn’t get the dramatic ‘perhaps I will just throw myself on the tracks’ moment that Celia Johnson gets in Brief Encounter – look at the eyes…
‘I meant to do it Fred, I really meant to do it’… Carol’s cracks are slower to appear and though there are many moments when we feel she might shatter, Blanchett’s ‘railway whistle moment’ is when she is meeting with Harge and the lawyers, her delivery of the speech as she barely hangs on by a thread, sums up her whole character for me, totally brave and totally trapped in equal measure. ‘We’re not ugly people Harge’.
I usually watch Brief Encounter alone and every time I feel the same tightness in my chest at certain moments, for me a viewing is utterly cathartic and Carol made me feel the same way. Carol deserves your attention, get to the cinema, but if you only watch it on DVD, dim the lights, turn off your phone and focus, don’t miss a moment, as every look, every shot is precise.
And if you haven’t seen Brief Encounter for goodness sake come round to mine, bring some tissues and we’ll have a movie night.