Carol (2015)

★★★★

Carol PosterDirector: Todd Haynes

Release Date: November 20th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara

A fateful glance across a shop floor ignites this grandly passionate yet earnestly personal love story. It is that classic meeting of the eyes moment, and eyes end up playing a huge part Todd Haynes’ tale — store clerk Therese’s (Rooney Mara) are expectant and uncertain whereas socialite Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) mask a painful truth. The two women subsequently have a conversation: “Shopping makes me nervous,” confesses the latter. “Working here makes me nervous,” replies Therese. Really their nerves are a product of each woman’s attraction to the other, the initial spark of excitement that could burn out or, potentially, flicker into something more fiery.

For many, Therese will be the more relatable of the two. She is the amateur embarking on a new adventure, full of excitement and trepidation. A femme fatale with a conscience, Carol must juggle instinct and desire against her past experiences. We’ll get to that. On a surface level, the film is practically faultless. Therese dons comfy woolly hats and patchwork scarves. Conversely, Carol is always decked out in the finest looking garments, and while she attends sophisticated parties entertained by brass bands, her soon-to-be other half drinks down the local. The aesthetics, though nice to look at, are completely beside the point. In fact, class and social standing are hardly acknowledged — the barrier holding back romance is society’s unwillingness to accept human nature.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the screenplay is at times too self-aware. Words don’t feel forced, but convenience does play its part: initiated by her male friend, Therese happens to have a spur-of-the-moment conversation about attraction shortly after meeting Carol. At worst, the script is a product of its naive time period and perhaps this makes it a bit less emotionally involving than something like Blue is the Warmest Colour (a film that can more easily evade ideas of social vilification and instead channel its energy into character-driven ideals).

On the flip side, these abrupt conversations about perceived cultural faux pas work because they incorporate notions of identity, and the film is an exploration of exactly that: Therese is still searching for her identity and has nothing to lose; Carol knows who she is, but is losing everything as a result. We often see the former gazing longingly out of shaded car windows, her face hidden beneath layers of sleet or rain, the suggestion being we’ve yet to see the real her. A delectable soundtrack matches the mood at any given time — Billie Holiday’s “Easy Living” is a particular highlight. The film is dripping in romantic overtures, it has to be, but there is a sincerity at play aided by grounded performances that steer the piece clear of potential sappiness.

And Carol, like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, is at its very best when its two muses are together on screen. With poise and consideration, their chemistry develops naturally. Whereas Carol is outwardly confident, oozing the sultry vibe of classic Hollywood star, Therese looks and sounds like a student taking extra lessons from her tutor during lunch break — she is initially on edge, bumbling, unsure of her standing with Carol. The characterisation is far from black-and-white though; both women evolve and devolve as their relationship gains and loses momentum.

Carol, for instance, is a bit of a mess herself, elegance shielding her crumbling home life. This fractured domesticity constantly gets in the way, even when she and Therese take a festive road trip (like Die Hard, this could end up being another go-to Christmas flick that isn’t actually about Christmas). The desires of husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) constantly linger and, sure enough, he bursts into view at the most inopportune moments. Chandler spends the entirety of proceedings with a grimace tattooed to his face. Harge isn’t a bad guy in fairness, but his attempts to hamper Carol’s relationship with her daughter, whom she loves dearly, are unsavoury. Sarah Paulson also shows up as Carol’s confidant, Abby, and is excellent as the realist with a heart.

Edward Lachman’s crackling cinematography warms us to the wintry 1950s cityscape. His camera glides around our central protagonists as they test the amorous fumes with slight touches, the lens fully aware sparks are flying and waiting for the right moment to engage — when intimacy inevitably erupts it’s expertly judged and as far from gratuitous as can be. The framing is also a joy to watch: one particular still shot splits the screen in half, on the left depicting Carol behind a doorway and on the right emphasising a picture of a ship caught in stormy waters. These instances are indicative of an outing clearly in love with the filmmaking process, and there is even a nod to the projectionists of yesteryear (and those valiant few still standing). Aspiring screenwriters get a shout-out too: “What I wanna do is write, that’s why I watch movies.”

If cinema interests you in any way, chances are you’re already well aware of the buzz surrounding both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and don’t need me to bolster an already sturdy case. Director Todd Haynes knows his actors are the driving force behind Carol’s success and rightly lets them get on with it. For what it is worth, the two are collectively and individually excellent: Mara’s subtle development is a joy to watch and a legal scene played with heartbreaking authenticity by Blanchett is the type that wins awards. The Aussie ought to invest in another trophy cabinet.

Carol - Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

★★★★

Director: Martin Scorsese

Release Date: December 25th, 2013 (US); January 17th 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie

It’s their fifth director/actor collaboration and The Wolf of Wall Street may well be Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio at their most exuberant. This maniacal tale of excess drowns in a flood of alcohol, showers in a plethora of drugs and embezzles in enough debauchery, sex and controversy to last a lifetime, although probably not a Jordan Belfort lifetime. Yet, in spite of the countless unsavouries on display, there’s a hint of caution lingering. A moment of thought, of silent consideration. It’s only a whisper though, nothing more — caution is perhaps the only trait lacking throughout the film.

Is The Wolf of Wall Street, then, glorifying a repulsive glut-based culture? Perhaps for over two and a half hours, yes. You laugh, guffaw even, when a damning head shake should suffice. That is until a line of blood trickles down one character’s forehead, when perspective and sense reign supreme. Maybe not from Jordan Belfort or any other money-gorging lackey at his disposal. Rather, from Scorsese himself, who subtly denounces the previously lauded mounds of greed and subsequently, masterfully, ties this disastrous party in a bow of warning.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the kind of guy who would strut into a room full of more experienced heads and immediately present himself as bigger and as better. In fact, shortly after a Black Monday layoff, Belfort does exactly that as he aggressively and successfully makes an impressive sale in his new job as part of a small brokerage firm. This sale, or in layman’s terms customer manipulation, is the catalyst for Belfort’s booming career, one that sees himself and partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) set up their own financial consultancy business that, funded by immorality, skyrockets the pair to monetary heaven.

From the outset, The Wolf of Wall Street positions itself as relentless and indulgent, maintaining those tonal traits throughout, effectively, its entirety. Excess is the mantra, limits are ostracised. Belfort narrates in a gloating manner not too far removed from, “Hey, look at all this crazy, hilarious shit we got up to!” Animals are paraded, devoured. Women are either reduced to objects solely to aid the male desire, or are rendered forever in debt to their gender opposites. At one point Belfort bellows, “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!” absolutely believing his own deplorable motto. Yet, in all its apparent glorification of the obscene — a glorification that has attracted waves of controversy in some parts — the film never dawns a disguise. Scorsese, and perhaps he has earned to right to do so, goes that bit further. Of course there’s distaste galore, how could there not be given we are seeing the world through Belfort’s eyes? The film is not a bait-and-switch — this isn’t a narrative presently neutrally, one which then props up one or two flailing dubious remarks. Far from it. The cards are on the table from the off, boisterous cards without question, but the only cards possible.

What then, of the unadulterated humour that often floods the screen? If these obscenities playing out before us are so hideous, uncaring and self-centred, why are they presented comically — or better yet, why are we laughing along? Primarily, you laugh because it’s difficult not to get caught up in it all; in the madness, the chaos, the highs… and that’s the point. Belfort’s story is a journey of ever increasing lavishness (if his sewage ran dollar-full, nobody would bat an eyelid) and there is so much surplus residue that realistic comprehension becomes ridiculous — “It was a madhouse,” says the ringleader, and it most certainly was. Quaalude binges at work. Customer misguidance at work. Chimpanzees at work. Less-romantic-than-animalistic group interactions at work. We meet FBI agent Patrick Denham investigating the dodgy dealings on Wall Street, and sure enough our disbelieving minds are served another shocking reminder, one that puts beyond doubt the main reason why we are recession-hit. These insanities are just that, yet they’re quickly glossed either with a witty one-liner that you chuckle at, or an utterly hilarious hum ritual simultaneously employed by everyone in a crowded room. Terrence Winter’s screenplay is at times uncompromisingly funny, often because it adheres to Belfort’s drastic lifestyle and blends vibrantly with Scorsese’s scoping direction.

Significantly though, the film does not condone its characters’ actions. Without giving too much away, Belfort’s status during the final twenty minutes ensures that his previous shenanigans are not to be heralded triumphantly, perhaps not even by the man himself. After loudly depicting his life of riches and numerous abnormal behaviours, the screen displays Belfort’s resultantly crippled existence. Yet it’s worth noting that the film refrains from divulging an absolute stance in its final scene; after two and a half hours incessantly shoving overabundance down your throat, Scorsese rightly lets the audience take for themselves that which they so desire — incidentally, the film is an 18 certificate, and surely any sensible adult would regard the on screen depictions as probably funny in the moment, but then even more wrong in reflection.

Matthew McConaughey looks set to pick up the Best Actor gong at this year’s Academy Awards for an incredible performance in Dallas Buyers Club, and he has a cameo here where the Texan gives an eccentric diatribe so oddly humorous that its seven and a half minute length races by. The speech sets the scene for what is to come, crudely summed up in three words: “Fuck the clients.” On the other end of said speech is the man McConaughey is likely to trump at the Oscars, Jordan Belfort himself, Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio’s portrayal is awards-worthy, without doubt. From that first rampant manipulative sell he has the audience in the palm of his hands, unwittingly eating and then repentantly spitting out his soup of excess. Belfort is a dick; nuances such as talking down to the phone and beaming at the camera confirm exactly that. Somewhat surprisingly then, DiCaprio manages to keep you engaged in his aura just enough. It’s not that you ever like him, or that you feel sorry for him at any point. Yet DiCaprio ensures that there would be never any doubting a pleading second helping from the audience, even if Belfort sold you an initial injustice.

Jonah Hill’s acting stock ascends further up the ladder (no pun intended) as he once again proves his dramatic and comedic worth. The opposite of Belfort’s slick demeanour, Donnie is brash and instantly uncontrollable. If it weren’t for his gleaming teeth, you’d be certain that he’d kissed a few asses in his day. Hill is even better here than in Moneyball, where his underplayed wit is substituted for full on abrasion. Margot Robbie is Naomi, Belfort’s mistress and later wife, and she holds her own in a display of smutty elegance. As Swiss banking extraordinaire Jean-Jacques Saurel, Jean Dujardin combats Belfort’s booming ego with an even more pompously narcissistic mindset. Kyle Chandler solidly plays aforementioned FBI agent Patrick Denham and the narrative flirts with this idea that, on another day, Denham could’ve been a Jordan Belfort. However, this intriguing notion is regrettably gobbled up by the monstrous endeavours on show when, on another day, it might’ve played a bigger role.

Denham’s undervaluation is slightly disappointing, although like many other potential complications, his infrequent presence in a way adds to the overbearing message of excess. For example, problems such as the finance-driven plot becoming too difficult to consume and to follow, along with the superfluous length of the film, both drive home the exuberant attitude on display. Even the series of infomercials (Jordan Belfort’s Straight Line) all add to this inherently consumerist ideology. Another nit-picky annoyance that occasionally rears centres on editing. In particular, one glaringly obvious mishap occurs during the now notoriously funny Quaalude-incapacitating scene, where a set of stairs intermittently grows and shrinks in size. Maybe noticing that kind of sparing mistake is an indication that the action on screen has lost you which, for once, is accurate. The joke isn’t all that funny and this is a shame considering how well DiCaprio frustratingly manoeuvres.

The controversy surrounding this latest Martin Scorsese romp is unjust, or at least unnecessary. While the film does, to a degree, glorify the antics of its morally hideous protagonist played exceptionally well by Leonardo DiCaprio, the final few scenes denounce rather than herald all that has come before. Funny, rapturous, and although hampered by one or two problems of over excessiveness, the film delivers with punch. If The Wolf of Wall Street was a pen ready for sale, Scorsese would have me buying paper. Lots of it.