Carol and Legend Falsify the Past They Exploit

Cate Blanchett (right) and Rooney Mara in Carol

Hollywood’s good old days could be sexually discreet yet more daring than is usually recognized. A startling, audacious moment in All about Eve (1950) showed Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) enlisting a female confederate to help effect her duplicitous career scheming, after which the two women ascend a staircase with their arms wrapped around each other, an intimation of Sapphic mischief. This key character detail was about more than Eve’s villainy; it showed writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sophistication about the world of theater and female sexuality and accomplished it without much ado. But there is much to-do about lesbians in Todd Haynes’s new social-thesis movie, Carol, only Haynes does it with pseudo-sophistication.

Carol, also set in the 1950s, is a self-congratulatory melodrama more concerned with declaring sexuality than examining character. Bourgeois New Jersey housewife Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett) is entranced by a New York City shopgirl, Therese (Rooney Mara), and pursues the younger working-class woman. Carol’s privilege is limited by her conventional marriage to Harge Aird (Kyle Chandler), which, in Haynes’s view, proves the unfair domination of patriarchal heterosexuality. This is a gender-studies cliché from academia (Haynes is a 1985 graduate of Brown University), utilized in Carol to make specious commentary on Eisenhower-era conformity. It’s Haynes’s favorite trope, as seen in his 2002 film Far from Heaven, an inept revision of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. The smugness that made Far from Heaven such an inert combination of female and male sexual repression and suburban racism also congeals Carol’s story of how two gay women come to fulfill their desires.

Haynes doesn’t have natural moviemaking instincts; his films work out predictable propositions from a “progressive” perspective. Carol lacks the emotional intensity of good melodrama because of Haynes’s constant point-making; his stiff compositions and drab palette betray his didactic impulse. And predictably, the media bow down before the lessons — the agenda and the clichés — that Haynes teaches.

Haynes doesn’t have natural moviemaking instincts; his films work out predictable propositions from a “progressive” perspective.

If ever there was a filmmaker who preached to the liberal choir, it’s Todd Haynes. Adapting a novel by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote the gay-themed The Talented Mr. Ripley) is instantaneous grade-grubbing. Haynes makes the naïve Therese a struggling photographer to sell the platitude that gays are artistic. And after Therese has endured harassment from a male suitor (Jake Lacy) and the frustration of her perplexing attraction to a woman, she gets rewarded with a photojournalist job at the bastion New York Times.

Therese could have been as devious as Eve Harrington (that might have made for a more interesting movie) and, like Eve, Haynes is also a careerist, particularly in the way he turns what should be a love story into a politically correct schematic about sexual liberation. An Old Hollywood pro would have emphasized the thrill of romance and the end to loneliness, but Haynes stresses the social and private impediments to Carol and Therese’s yen (calling it a “passion” would be excessive). Contemporary self-righteousness insists on viewing the past as colorless and regressive. As usual, Haynes denies modern audiences a carefree celebration of sexual identity because he’s stuck in moralizing, always making his characters suffer — not to indict our “non-evolved” history, just to make an impertinent confirmation that today’s times and social attitudes are better.

#related#When Carol and Therese escape repression (who wouldn’t want to quit New Jersey?) and go on the road, their journey is doomed. Carol — incredibly — keeps a gun in her trousseau, and angry, alcoholic husband Harge’s vengeance chases them down. It doesn’t help that Blanchett’s Carol vamps about in a mink coat like Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment. Blanchett’s arch tragedienne mannerisms and vocal affectations unfortunately turn Haynes’s sturm und drang road movie into sturm und drag-queen insipidness. Mara’s mousey Therese is costumed like Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, as if such film-school references authenticated this inauthentic tale.

The ultimate point of Haynes’s self-conscious filmmaking is to remake our movie past so that it conforms to modern ideology. This costs Carol any genuine sense of gay sexual identity as a modern social and human fact — the sense that was implicit in All about Eve’s extraordinary insight. Using gayness as the point of a political argument makes for poor drama, yet it’s part of a progressive fallacy. Not even Carol’s big consummation scene (blurry dissolves and timid nudity plus overdone panting and heaving) could make these stick figures’ sexuality seem genuine. Haynes descends Old Hollywood’s staircase by condescending to his audience.

*      *      *

Tom Hardy in “Legend”

The ladylike lesbian portrayals in Carol pale next to Tom Hardy’s double-barreled performance as two identical-twin British gangsters, the Kray brothers, in Legend. Hardy invents entirely opposite movements, voices, and facial expressions for heterosexual playboy Reggie and gay, goonish Ronnie. Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s bio-pic claims to tell “the secret history of the 1960s,” but Legend is really just a revamp of Martin Scorsese–Guy Ritchie machismo (with a parody of Hollywood’s Weinstein-brothers myth thrown in for good measure).

Legend’s snarkiness is also a fallacy of progress. Its failure stirs recollections of the real-life Kray brothers’ other pop-culture legacies, both musical. Morrissey’s “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” (1990) confessed how the media’s romanticizing of criminals and gangsters feeds into social pathology as he ironically serenaded the Krays (“In my cell I followed you / And here’s a list of who I slew”). The Krays’ perverse celebrity forced Morrissey’s self-examination.

Elvis Costello’s “Clubland” (1981) defied crime movies that glorify antisocial macho ethnic privilege. Inspired by the Krays’ social and sexual scandals, Costello sketched nightclub and government skullduggery (briefly shown in Legend) as it affected social aspirations and existential struggle across England’s class system from London’s East End council flats to the men’s clubs of the St. James’s district (dubbed “Clubland,” and also shown briefly in Legend). Both Morrissey and Costello unpacked their personal mythologies in anthems about Englishness and masculinity. They found thrilling ways to assess crime lore and pop culture — Costello even coined his finest neologism, “contemptment.” Alas, Helgeland’s film lags behind, descending the staircase, inspiring regret if not contempt.

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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