Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, & Kyle Chandler

This film was an awards show darling a few years back, BUT I didn’t get around to seeing it until last week (on Netflix). The film (made for less than $12 million) received a 10 min. standing ovation at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival -WOW! The woman who wrote The Price of Salt– Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, Strangers on a Train, etc.)- was a friend (later in life) to the screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. The Price of Salt was inspired by a blonde woman in a mink coat who ordered a doll from Highsmith when she was working as a temporary salesgirl in the toy section of Bloomingdale’s in New York City during the 1948 Christmas season.

Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven; HBO’s miniseries Mildred Pierce) has a deep interest in stories w/ strong women and unlikely love. His style was inspired by Douglas Sirk, who was known for “women’s pictures” (Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, etc.) Carol is quite an effective film w/ regard to its look: period costumes and hairdos (wigs), musical score (by Carter Burwell, frequent collaborator of the Coen brothers), beautiful cinematography (by Edward Lachman), and thoughtful directing style. Carol was shot on Super 16 mm film to resemble the look and feel of photographic film from the late ’40s/early ’50s. There is shooting through windows and using reflection.

What I found lacking was the dialogue; I found out that some other viewers felt the same. I expected more deep conversations between the two leading characters, 21 y.o. clerk, Terese Belivet (Rooney Mara- wide-eyed yet wise beyond her years), and 30-something housewife, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). However, it wasn’t hard to relate to Terese, who feels uneasy and unsophisticated when hanging out w/ Carol (w/ her fur coat, jewels, and manicured red nails). Terese wants to work as a photographer; she is more of an observer, letting life happen to her.

Carol is a BIT of a mystery to the viewer, as well as to Terese. It’s obvious to viewers that Carol deeply loves her young daughter, Rindy. The character of Carol was inspired by Virginia Kent Catherwood (1915-1966), a Philadelphia socialite 6 years older than Highsmith with whom she had a love affair in the ’40s. Catherwood lost custody of her daughter after a taped recording of a liaison she had in a hotel was used against her. Carol is risking much by falling in love with Terese, BUT she can’t help it, as she tells Abby (Sarah Paulson). This woman who seems to know Carol best; Abby had a much bigger role before the film was edited, Paulson said in interviews after the film was released. Abby is someone that I wanted to know more about; she isn’t afraid to assert herself in a male-dominated world.

The men in story are NOT evil, BUT they are clueless. Terese’s long-time boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), seems like a decent guy, though there isn’t much interest on her side. Richard is planning/saving for a big trip to Europe after they get married. I thought it spoke volumes when Terese gently refused to go to over to his family’s home on Christmas day. Danny (John Magaro), the young newspaper reporter who hits on Terese, turns out to be a supportive friend in time. Even Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Harg (Kyle Chandler), is NOT painted as an all-out villain. I thought the actor did a fine job w/ the role, esp. in the more quiet moments (notice the pained expressions on his face). I think that Harg loved Carol, BUT he didn’t realize just how far she had gone from him (emotionally). When they were married, her life was all about him (as was expected of a housewife of Carol’s status).

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Thoughts on a few South Asian diaspora books

Books I’ve Recently Read:

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Synopsis: 1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity… In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.

Don’t start this book if you’re in a bad (or down) mood; it’s not going to cheer you up. I liked a few of the stories, but some of them seemed too far-fetched or pandering to the exotic image of India. I don’t think men will enjoy this book much; the males in this collection are either terrible or impotent (as in unable to improve the lives of the women and girls in their lives). There is also no mention of the religious (mainly Hindu/Muslim) strife before (or after) Partition; this seemed odd to some of my book club. 

Streets of Darkness by A.A. Dhand

Synopsis: The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. 

This (page-turner) is written by a pharmacist (he kept his day job) who grew up in Bradford, England. If you’re looking for literary, descriptive book re: desis in the UK, this isn’t the book for you; look up Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie instead. This is mystery w/ some desi flavor and interlinked characters who inhabit a city on decline (joblessness, drugs, religious strife, and white power). One of the best threads is the loving marriage between Harry (who was raised Sikh) and his wife (a nurse of Pakistani Muslim heritage). This book may be tough to find (for those in the US, as I learned from those in my book club); it’s available from UK sellers on Amazon. Dhand has already sold the rights to this book (and its sequel), so it will eventually be made into a TV show. 

Books I’m Currently Reading:

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald 

Synopsis: Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, bags heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. Demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s history reveals cross-racial affinities below the surface of early twentieth-century America.

This book is full of statistics, so it’s not a fast read. I’m in the middle of it now, and will keep on reading. It’s very educational, so I highly recommend it to anyone in the desi diaspora. I wanted to read it a long time ago, but didn’t get around to it. One of my acquaintances, an actor-turned-teacher, Alauddin Ullah, is featured in the book; his father came to East Harlem about 50 yrs ago from Chittagong (now a mid-sized city in Bangladesh).  

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Synopsis: In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child–a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 

I’ve only read a few chapters of this (nonfiction) book, but the topic is very interesting, so I will keep on reading. At the start of the story, Nordberg gets to know Azita, a female parliamentarian in her mid-30s, who has turned her fourth daughter into a boy (Mehran). 

The Dinner (2016) starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, & Rebecca Hall

[1] Nobody can accuse The Dinner of being unambitious, but I would like to accuse it of being an ambitious mess. 

[2] What happens when your are face to face with a clear moral dilemma? Can you bury your integrity in lies? Surely, such a deception will haunt you if you have a conscience. Self interest makes it harder to do the right thing, and this test will be faced by everyone at some point in their life.

[3] The enablers… are not helpful. They help perpetuate the problem via denial and/or self-interest. Unfortunately, this is how many families deal with mental illness: by winging it and not bothering to look up symptoms of abnormal and/or destructive behavior, and/or to consult with experts when these behaviors emerge.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

A former high school history teacher, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan- an Englishman I’d only seen in Philomena) and his wife/cancer survivor, Claire (Laura Linney- one of my faves), meet at an exclusive restaurant w/ his older brother/congressman, Stan (Richard Gere), and his much younger wife, Kate (Rebecca Hall). Paul (who sees the negative side of life) obviously doesn’t want to be there; he has a very strained relationship w/ Stan and thinks that this food is extravagant. The plan is to discuss over dinner how to handle a crime committed by their teenage sons, Mike and Rick. We see in flashbacks the teens harassing a homeless woman, throwing garbage at her, then setting an ATM building on fire (w/ her inside). This was filmed, uploaded online (by Stan’s adopted black son- Beau), and made the local news. The boys have not been identified yet; the parents are very anxious about how this will affect their future.

Stan’s tireless assistant, Nina (Adepero Oduyo from 12 Years a Slave) is in the sitting room, holding his calls. Stan is a very busy man, running for governor and trying to pass a mental heath bill (partly b/c his own family has been affected by this issue). Kate is the one who truly knows Stan’s kids, as she has time for them (his ex-wife Barbara, played by Chloe Sevigny, has run away to India). We learn that the brothers’ mother was abusive, esp. to Paul. Stan was favored and had to be “the man of the house” (since their father was “checked out” emotionally). Paul lost his job after he lost his cool (in front of his class), cursing and insulting them. He was placed on meds, though stopped taking them (wanting to “feel like my old self”). Claire noticed that he was hiding the pills, yet didn’t say anything. 

This film has an interesting premise and tries to tackle big issues: morality, loyalty, mental illness, family dysfunction, and different fears (losing a spouse to illness, losing a child to jail, etc.) It’s not effectively put together, unfortunately. The sound design is bad (at times), the camera moves around (for no reason), and the editing is choppy. The characters turn out to be unlikable, yet not in an entertaining way. (A few viewers mentioned that the play Carnage tackles some of the same issues, but in a more interesting way.) The ending of the film is very abrupt- it’s as if the producers ran out of money! 

The author of the book “The Dinner” (Herman Koch) walked away from the European premiere of this film in early 2017. The Dutchman did not wish to stay for the after-party to talk to the director (Owen Moverman), cast members, or audience. Koch thought the scriptwriter had transferred his cynical story into a moral tale. He esp. disliked the movie’s reference to themes like American violence and the stigma of mental illness. A Dutch film came out in 2013, then an Italian one in 2014; both were well received and nominated for many awards.

I think it needed to be trimmed down. I loved the performances, esp. Rebecca Hall; I think she’s great in everything. I wasn’t bored. I was exasperated on some occasions. 

-Comments from Mark Kermode’s review (see below)