WowMIKEWow’s review published on Letterboxd:
Well holy shit, a surprise Christmas movie! And the perfect time of year for it, too. Which, actually, come to think of it; where's the outrage? Why isn't there an endless deluge of inane prattle on the interwebz about whether or not this actually counts as a Christmas movie, Die Hard style? Because, it's set during Christmas time, and the characters constantly reference the fact that it's Christmas, and the themes of love vs familial bonds and man's inhumanity to man and how we treat each other can certainly be slotted in with the other yuletide messages that usually show up in Christmas movies...but since this movie doesn't have any talking reindeers or jolly old fat men, does it reeeeally count as one?
...already, I've gone off on a tangent that has no relation to anything else, other than it gives me another opportunity to mock people who obsess over genre restrictions, and slotting films in neat little boxes. Basically, the whole "is Die Hard a Christmas movie" thing has once again annoyed me to a point where I'm derailing this review just to make fun of the whole thing some more. Because at the end of the day, who the fuck cares? Christmas movie, not a Christmas movie, whatever. It's still Die Hard, and as such, it's still a monument to moviemaking perfection.
Carol, I hate to say, isn't as good as Die Hard. At no point does Cate Blanchett shoot Kyle Chandler with a gun she taped to her back, which is a shame, because the back half of this movie could use with some livening up. Which is honestly a shame, because the first half of this movie is honestly as good as any other movie of its kind that I can remember. It's really well-made, with a kind of naturalism to its presentation that mixes very well with some truly impeccable production design; and I mean really impeccable, because it’s so easy to make these things look like high school dress-up. This never does, on any level of the production; when it comes to their clothes, the props, the set design, everything combines so as to entirely immerse us in the era.
I didn’t watch this when it first came out, I guess because there were other things, but also I think the film was a bit of a victim of its own success. It looked from the outside like Oscarbait, which is a genre I have no interest in at the best of times, and an active dislike of at the worst of times. I'm pleased to say right now, that this only counts as Oscarbait when it comes to the performances, which are very good, but the kind of very good that seem tailor made for Awards season.
For the rest of the movie, it's refreshingly nuanced, with a nice lack of period-specific didacticism. Therese and Carol are persecuted for their love, but their persecution is surprisingly direct and specific, and an obvious example of a broken system, rather than the frustratingly nonspecific "oppression" that movies like this usually settle on, so as not to make the old farts at the Academy nervous that we as a society haven't actually solved everything. The main threat to their relationship comes from Carol's soon-to-be ex-husband, who hopes to use proof of their affair in his divorce case against her. The fact that he can do that, and the lack of challenge he faces (from any of the characters; it's just accepted that this is a valid thing he can do) says more about the state of the world they live in than any number of Oscar-friendly Big Emotional Speeches(™) could hope to accomplish.
Their relationship works, mostly by virtue of the skill of the performers. It's nicely subdued, and their courtship operates more on the level of suggestive undertone than you often see in these mainstream, big budgeted movies, which like I say have a tendency to go for outsized bombast. Not a lot is said out loud here, which means we kind of have to infer a lot of what's going on for ourselves, which I appreciate a lot; good on this movie for trusting its audience to keep with the film when most of the action is happening under the surface.
It's a character focused romance, rather than a romance that's made in service about a wider "point" about systemic oppression and societal rejection. Which, don't get me wrong, are vital themes worth exploring, and in fact do come up several times in this movie. But the focus here is first and foremost on the people falling in love, which is so often the first thing that gets sacrificed when the filmmakers want to make a message movie. The conflict here isn't so much whether Carol and Therese will get found out (though that is there), so much as it is the question of whether these people themselves will be able to sustain a relationship, or even if they're right for each other. In a touch I wasn't expecting, it's actually their age difference that presents a more taboo subject for the both of them, rather than their gender.
Like I said, the thing loses steam a little bit in its second half, when it does become more about Carol's husband, and the court case he threatens her with, and all that. Honestly, this movie was doing just fine without all this "plot" stuff; the story was the romance, and the romance was existing in the silences between these two characters, and frankly it was working. A lot of the second half of this movie feels like the filmmakers capitulating to the mainstream, which I don't think was necessary. Because "mainstream" audiences don't need their movies dumbed down for them, which is a mistake I think this movie makes, a little bit. It doesn't tank the picture, but it makes it a bit less special, a bit less personal. It went from a lovely portrait of a subtle romance to a movie that was still good, but which I'd seen several times before.