Out of the films that received several Academy Award nominations this year, two of them, director John Crowly’s Brooklyn and Tod Haynes’ Carol, are set in the 1950s, a decade torn between conformity and rebellion. Although these films take place during the same decade as iconic movies like Grease, neither film exactly prescribes to the Rock ‘N’ Roll, candy-colored imagery that one would normally associate with the time period.
Instead, both tell darker stories, particularly in the case of Carol, that supersede stereotypes and ultimately bring insight into human nature.
In addition to their shared decade, another way in which these films compare is in the portrayal of a female leading role.
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) plays the lead character of Eilis, an Irish immigrant, while Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Rooney Mara (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Her), who play forbidden lovers, essentially share the position (though Blanchett was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress and Rooney for Best Supporting). Each actress plays a flawed, nuanced character that is able to hold themselves up in a decade characterized by male dominance.
Another similar element is the lack of people of color on screen. This deficit has been a note of controversy not only in these films, but in others that were also recognized by the Academy Awards this year.
However, beyond these aforementioned factors, the two have little in common. They diverge in their fundamental core: their overall tone and structure of narrative.
Carol is told in a full circle narrative. The opening scene is merely a taste of what is to come in the plot that unfolds in the form of a flashback by Rooney Mara’s character, Therese.
A dark, brooding tone is set almost immediately by the drab colors in the set and in costuming. Therese’s life is all greys and hazy greens before Carol arrives in a sweep of elegance to bring splashes of bright crimson in her coat, her hat and her near constant smear of red lipstick.
It is in these subtleties: the use of color, imagery and music, that this film draws a great deal of strength. Audiences are able to marvel at carefully crafted shots and perfectly-timed music throughout.
After their initial love-at-first-sight meeting, Carol brings a sense of purpose and direction to Therese’s life, which was previously burdened by an empty relationship with an eager boyfriend played by Jake Lacy (Obvious Child). Terez agrees to every suggestion Carol presents and the two become inseparable.
However, conflict arises when Carol’s husband, from whom she seeks a divorce, becomes wary of Carol’s morals due to her past and present relationships with women. His antiquated notions about homosexuality are brought to court and threaten Carol’s custody of her beloved young daughter.
Though it is fundamentally a love story, it is also a study of age and wisdom. While the women share an obvious bond, Carol, who is presumed to be many years older, must ultimately teach Therese the importance of waiting and of not knowing all the answers to life’s questions right away. It is a piece of wisdom that comes with age and experience, things that Therese must gather if the two are to be together.While the narrative form is intriguing and the cinematography is stunning, the characters are so flawed to the point that the film is, at times, off-putting and difficult to engage with emotionally. Therese is especially perplexing as she, at least in the beginning of the film, seems unable to understand human connection or how to engage with others. Carol repeatedly remarks that Therese seems to have been “flung out of space.”
Even when there appears to be character development as the two become closer, Carol becomes annoyed by how many times a day she must ask Therese about what is on her mind. While Mara is obviously a skilled actor and completely embodies this peculiar character, her talent is not enough to draw the film out of its cool, distant tone.
Blanchett, who recently won an Academy Award for another title role in Blue Jasmine, carries the film as a wise older woman who presents a voice of reason. Her sense of poise and self-assurance brings validity to each moment she is on screen, even when other characters around her are absurd. Her emotions range from pure tenderness around her daughter to loving amusement around Therese to an exasperated anger around her aggressive husband.
Supporting actors Kyle Chandler (Wolf of Wall Street), who plays the role of her husband and Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) who plays Carol’s former lover and current friend, also give strong, engaging performances in their smaller yet significant roles.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn is a traditional story told in a traditional manner. Audiences watch a linear story of a young Irish immigrant travel to the United States in search of opportunity. She works in a department store and falls in love with a young Italian plumber, whose cultural differences bring more light-hearted moments to the film. Rather than the classic 1950s tale of American teen rebellion, the film sees the decade from the view of an outsider longing to assimilate into an evolving culture.
The narrative’s darkest moments are the scenes of sudden loss and of harrowing homesickness, a yearning for more familiar environment with her mother and sister who she was forced to leave behind.
During these sequences in particular, Ronan gives a dynamic performance, her expressions shifting from subtle flickers of pain and longing to heart-wrenching outbursts.
The film presents no flashbacks, distorted camera angles or items of controversy. Instead, there is a crispness to it — a fresh, yet traditional take on storytelling that simply allows audiences to engage with the characters and empathize with their relatable emotions of homesickness, young love, isolation and mourning the loss of a loved one.
It is perhaps this deep, human quality, along with its strong performance by Ronan, which propelled it to such critical acclaim and a spot amongst this year’s nominees for Best Picture.
The colors of the film, which include bright cotton candy pink, warm greens and Ronan’s piercing blue eyes, are more in line with the traditional image of the 1950s, particularly in the moments on Coney Island. At the same time, the drabber colors of Eilis’ life in Ireland help to draw a stark contrast between her new life and the one she left behind.
Ultimately, these two films give audiences a new perspective on a well documented decade. This view is that of outsiders who are deeply affected by a culture they did not help to shape.