Carol (2015)

★★★★

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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

12 Years a Slave (2014)

★★★★★

Director: Steve McQueen

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (US); January 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Those purposeful words, you will have heard over the last few months in trailers, adverts and previews. They are strong-willed; in one sense uplifting, yet in another more visceral sense, haunted by humanity’s most evil endeavours. Despair and freedom, traits inversely diverging in the life, rather, the existence of Solomon Norfolk. Steve McQueen challenges us to consider and then reconsider as his depiction of the animalistic slave trade hammers with shock, but does not rely on it. For the most part, the moments of solitude and silence profoundly exhibit a monstrous reality lived by those such as the remorseless slave owner Edwin Epps. There are no punches pulled, no whippings recoiled; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing watch without question. More than that though, it is a necessary watch. Not to reassure a cultural ridding that hasn’t fully been expunged. Rather, to condemn what should never have occurred, and to shed a flicker of true resilience on a truly despicable time.

A well-off and considerate skilled carpenter, Solomon Norfolk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tends to the every need of his young family. It’s 1841 and the slave trade is rife with wealthy disregard. Approached by two not noticeably iffy gentlemen, Solomon — a fiddle player at heart — is offered an extended musical job, an offer greeted with appreciative acceptance. After a drunken night, he awakens in chains, stripped of his identity and mercilessly pawned. 12 Years a Slave tells Solomon’s harrowing story, as he is traded from a would-be sympathetic slave owner (that is, if such a juxtaposition exists) to the vile, despicable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has abomination clenched in his fists and the abyss peering through his eyes.

This is an intense watch, no doubt. Not necessarily because it’s another retelling of a horrible time — though that alone warrants attention and denouncing. Rather, it comes down to how Steve McQueen unflinchingly tells the story. His directorial application is admirable in that no disservice is done to those who fell victim to slavery, this isn’t in any remote sense a Hollywood-esque drama bloated full of riveting set pieces or manipulative tones. Nor is it buoyed by a somewhat ironic, semi-exploitative raft akin to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a cinematic spectacle in every sense. 12 Years a Slave is real life, a reflection of events not so long gone. You may judge success on ticket sales, or audience reception, or even personal affirmation, but there’s also a genuine feeling abound that McQueen’s priorities are and would always have been aligned alongside authentic storytelling regardless. His straightforward devotion to re-imagining the unimaginable is admirable, and it’s this wholeheartedness that enables the viewer to watch with an only just an ounce of ease, but an ounce nonetheless.

From the point of his wrongful capture, Solomon wrestles with a tragic dignity-driven dilemma: does he succumb to hate to become bastion of support for his helpless compatriots already grappled by despair, or does he stoutly, fearlessly stare directly into the heartlessness of one of humanity’s worst episodes? Initially, Solomon is disbelieving, perhaps as much of slavery’s existence as of his own forced manoeuvre into it. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists… fellow performers,” he wrongly assures, detailing those absolutely iffy gentlemen. Maybe if he can convince someone, anyone, they’ll see sense. But there is no sense, not in the racist pits of Southern USA. Everywhere Solomon glances there is a monster in human skin. The slave-trader, auctioning off people like watches (“My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”). The plantation owner, who treats his slaves fairly well — but to treat a slave well would be to treat a slave as a human, not an object, therefore not to treat a slave at all. His empathy is misguided. The hired carpenter, a white pre-Nazi figure teaming with abhorrent spew. Yet through these early trials, Solomon remains resilient and hopeful — freedom is still vaguely in sight.

Wholly, 12 Years a Slave is mighty, but a number of moments stand out in their contrasting potency. As a twenty-first century audience, we’ve sponged it all, and have resultantly become immune to most atrocities displayed in film or any other art-form. There’s something to be said, then, for an act of depicted violence that leaves you mouth gaping, eyes watering and mind searching. In a sickening whipping display not far removed from The Passion of the Christ, the film emphatically compounds its horrors. Yet it remains realistic, and that rankles the stomach. Conversely, a scene of isolation is striking. Surrounded by an audibly hissing nature, pupils dark and eclipsing, Solomon slowly stares right and left before catching the camera’s lens. Profound, absolutely. Painful, worryingly. You wonder whether Solomon has approached the point of no return, the despair, and assume thereafter that he has seen no end. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, perhaps the most poignant all both in delivery and meaning.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon is utterly remarkable. He is defiant in hope, upsetting in pain and compelling throughout, embodying this range in absolute earnest. The role is a difficult one; Ejiofor must reign in grief and disperse it invariably at the correct moments, or risk devaluing the man. At the same time, Solomon’s sympathetic nature cannot restrain, and instead Ejiofor has to symbolise at least partial hope where there is none. Ejiofor masterfully accomplishes all of this, and more — every strained note from his mouth rings with plea, and his eyes bulge with emotion. As diabolical slave-owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrably bewitches himself in a spell of pure evil. At one point Epps falls flat on his face, yet you cannot muster up the slightest node of joy because it’s obvious that his repulsive mindset enjoyed the discomfort.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is also incredible. She plays Patsey, a young female slave whom Epps fantasies over and hates himself for it. Nyong’o displays an air of vulnerability, whilst at the same time commanding the screen with her undeniably astute presence. Paul Giamatti has a minor role as the aforementioned slave-trader, excelling in cruelty, the same uncaring sensibility as Paul Dano, the aforementioned hired carpenter. Brad Pitt oddly appears as a different carpenter, Amish beard and all. His random arrival is slightly off-putting, though the co-producer of the film (ah, that’s why) is solid enough. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Ford, the empathetic plantation owner whose sentences begin with an English accent and end in a southern drawl. Having said that, Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to play the role, that much-loved real life personality giving the character some small semblance of decency.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, offering a pristine vehicle for the film to vibrantly beam out of. A contagious scent of excellence must’ve attached itself to each component on set, and Hans Zimmer’s score is no different. Moving and soaring, Zimmer’s orchestral harmonies wrap around events on screen as if to comfort the forsaken humans. This contrasts with the weighty Roll Jordan Roll, a roar of solidarity that you don’t want Solomon to contribute to for fear of his own confirmation of plight.

If not the best film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is certainly the most important and probably the least comfortable to watch. Steve McQueen powerfully unravels a horrific period lived mercilessly by those far wickeder than any revised history suggests, and endured harrowingly by those whose suffering is unrelenting in its depiction. It’s stark and honest, so much so that you’ll exit the cinema, mind image-strewn, wishing the film never had to be made.

Mud (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon

“Well ain’t that somethin’?”

Matthew McConaughey’s would-be convict Mud appreciates the trivial simplicities of life: a boat for crossing water, food to quench hunger and loyalty in a time of need. What else if not the bare minimum, would a man of his troubles seek refuge amongst? His runaway status evokes moral juggling — do you root for the criminal, or sentence the lover? Jeff Nichols’ admirable tale of two boys who tend to see the best in otherwise dour surroundings works well on a number of narratively distinct levels. However it’s only when each aspect blends with the other elements above, below and to either side that Mud emerges from good film status, to really great film status.

And that most definitely is something.

Ellis and Neckbone spend their days stretching their curfews to the maximum in the jungle-like plains of Arkansas. They’re young, ambitious and boast that primitive exuberance driven by the desire to learn and discover, an energy that only fully manifests out on the edge of civilisation, where uninhabited landscapes taunt with hidden secrets. On another planned excavation to an abandoned boat planted high in a tree, the boys encounter the mysterious Mud: grizzled, somewhat wearisome yet poised and alert. From then, perhaps partly captivated by the stranger who appears to be the ultimate wild-man and also drawn upon the notion of trust, optimism and loyalty, Ellis and Neckbone make it their prerogative to assist the moored Mud in his attempts to reconnect with the girlfriend he murdered a perpetrator to protect.

On full throttle through his self-professed McConaissance, Matthew McConaughey delivers another outstanding performance as the titular Mud. The romcom stalwart turned highly-rated ‘serious’ star has an underplayed role, seldom emitting bouts of raw emotion (although when he does, he succeeds). McConaughey is challenged opposite two younger actors; he must act as a buffer for their highly-spirited intuition whilst developing his own character’s persona simultaneously. It’s fitting that he is the centrepiece of the narrative, the proverbial glue holding everything together, however it should be noted that McConaughey is not the centrepiece of the film. That’s the pair of maturing youths, Ellis and Neckbone, both portrayed brilliantly and charmingly by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland.

Ellis and Neckbone are instantly drawn to the rugged fugitive. Although indecisive (particularly Neckbone) the boys see something in Mud that they do not have in their own lives — a father figure. Ellis, parents’ relationship cracking, is often faced with a distant dad who worries more about his own future rather than that of his son. Neckbone lives with his uncle, an outgoing type resembling the cooler big brother as opposed to a caring father. Growing up in a masculine culture, one defined by putting food on the table, working and earning and treating women with utmost respect, Ellis sees hope in Mud’s outright optimism. Optimism for love and a secure relationship in the face of violence and restraint. Optimism for freedom against restriction. Tye Sheridan, who the camera follows more than anyone, holds his own in scenes opposite a multitude of big-name actors: other than McConaughey, the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon make up an efficient, talented supporting cast.

Stand by Me is an obvious comparison but the coming-of-age component is only one of two main plot lines, the other channelling a more commonly depicted fugitive (and subsequent search for) story. Mud, having murdered the man who impregnated the love of his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and later thrown her downstairs, has no allies. Police prompt his image in the faces of residents and passers-by. The father and brother of Mud’s victim spend their relentlessly watching Juniper, ready to pounce and eliminate the outcast on sight. Mud has done wrong, but his eloquent treatment of the two boys demands admiration. He becomes their guru, and a trusted one at that (“It’s a hell of a thing ain’t it?” Hell of a thing”). You want him to succeed, just as much as you root for Ellis and Neckbone in their numerous quests: for maturity, for relationship, for acceptance.

The two primary narratives amalgamate into one, creating a wonderful Winter’s BoneMoonrise Kingdom hybrid. Our main characters share a familier desire. Others are interested in self-preservation of body, property and history. There are even boats and water, a lot of it. The setting shares connotations with both films too, and is the very first nuance you are aware of as the outing begins. Shot beautifully by Adam Stone, the widespread landscapes juxtapose Mud’s isolation and loneliness, highlighting just how much he is hemmed in by a multitude of threats. His lack of ever-presence reinforces this idea of being trapped, and along with McConaughey’s composed-yet-ready-to-burst demeanour, you are always captivated by Mud and ultimately invested in his fate.

Jeff Nichols writes as eloquently as he directs. Camera enveloping atmosphere, words rhyming off lips propelled by their engrossing southern drawls, Nichols offers up a truly splendid piece of film. Alongside his young co-stars, McConaughey matches the excellence served up by his director and delivers on all fronts.

On present form, is there any stopping him?