Tag Archives: Cate Blanchett

Carol out in the cold

WITH nothing more complex than a series of firmly-closed doors, the film Carol takes a powerful dramatic turn that subtly gives two women the space to explore their attraction.

“The wait for enlightenment will be long, and the darkest, pre-dawn hour lies ahead.”

When Therese (Rooney Mara) slips into the passenger seat beside Carol (Cate Blanchett) and shuts out her fiancé, they leave him blinking on the kerbside. Soon after, Carol’s old flame Abby (Sarah Paulson) firmly shuts her front door on Carol’s estranged husband (Kyle Chandler), leaving him awkwardly-framed through a small window.

But it is the shutting of the door between the two protagonists – closed by Carol against Therese at the height of an argument – which makes forbidden fruit all the more potent for both women.

Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay (based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt) uses these pivotal separations to mark out the territory of a love story that breaks several taboos.

The shutting-out of men has been a powerful literary force ever since Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) in which Helen Graham dramatically slams her bedroom door in her husband’s face and created what many credit as the first feminist novel.

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CHRISTMAS CAROL Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese.

Published a century later, and phenomenally successful in its day, The Price of Salt disappeared from mainstream lists until Highsmith came out as its author in the 1980s and changed the book’s title. Plans were made in the 1990s to adapt it for the screen, and almost twenty years on – surely one of the film industry’s greatest examples of persistence – the story has been thrust into mainstream consciousness.

And its arrival pulls few punches. The unstable yearnings of unfolding passion will be familiar and understandable to anyone who has ever fallen in love, but emotional and sexual lust between two women is rarely seen on the big screen across suburban cinemas.

Carol contains several quite inadvertent similarities to other stories. When Carol and Therese take to the road, the story has strong echoes of Thelma and Louise. The escapist quality of that journey also speaks to the kind of concealed passion explored in Brokeback Mountain.

Highsmith’s novel traverses similar tragic precipices, yet its originality lies in the choices Carol and Therese make when their love is swiftly and coldly thwarted. Far from home, in a frozen place ironically called Waterloo, they have the door to their world cruelly wrenched open for the very worst of reasons – a blow that lands right in Carol’s weak spot.

It is from this point in the story, the final act of Carol, that Phyllis Nagy has done greatest service to Highsmith, but don’t be fooled by the alleged ‘happy ending’ tag this story has garnered. While it doesn’t have the shock ending of Thelma and Louise or the tragedy of Brokeback Mountain, the denoument of Carol comes with a level of compromise and risk that could never be defined as a positive outcome.

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COLD COMFORT The original novel takes its characters on a road trip into America’s heartland.

Cate Blanchett portrays Carol as glamorous and anaesthetised, at times a sheer minx and at others world-weary, as though every stroke of make-up and hair product in the high-fashion front is only just managing to hold her upright. She inhabits Highsmith’s title role with a languid style that is never more poignant than when Carol is required to behave.

The slow burn of Therese’s story is given a sparse amount of dialogue, since her passion must remain internal until it is safe to express. Rooney Mara gives Therese the perfect hyper self-awareness in the role that is closest to Highsmith herself, who revealed in the book’s 1989 re-release that she’d encountered a woman like Carol while working in a department store as a youth. Despite finding out where she lived, Highsmith never made contact.

Knowing the fully-fledged rage with which Highsmith went on to live and write by, it’s impossible to watch Rooney Mara’s performance without the sense that Therese would eventually give Carol a run for her money as a self-determined woman.

Haynes has been praised for the visual style of Carol, yet it has nothing like the luminous, throbbing-with-colour quality of his other 1950s-era film Far From Heaven (2002).

Carol and Therese inhabit a darkened, soft-focus, wintry world. Glimpses of sun show themselves at the edges, but remain out of reach, as though the wait for enlightenment will be long, and the darkest, pre-dawn hour lies ahead.

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CLAIRE’S CAROL Highsmith’s book was originally published with a different title, under a pseudonym.

Nagy’s screenplay achieves far more with the story’s dramatic turns than Highsmith’s novel, which was her second and suffers a little from not knowing what to do with these characters before she sets them on the road.

Nagy knew Highsmith and drew on her friend’s experience of what it was like to be a lesbian in the 1940s and 1950s by adding detail on the legal and psychological challenges faced by same sex-attracted women in the United States.

But Highsmith’s novel sends Carol and Therese on a journey through America’s road culture, beyond the restrictions of their lives and dangerously oblivious to the ramifications of their journey, that is not fully realised on the screen.

“A mesmerising, disturbing film about unearthing passion and controlling rage.”

The scale of the route rivals that of Thelma and Louise, yet the cinematic potential of vast landscapes is not captured in the film. When the city-dwelling protagonists emerge in an expansive, elemental space they are unlocked from the world that confined them, and their enemies are required to do far more work to rein them in. In this, Carol is a precursor to Highsmith’s best-known works, the Tom Ripley series of thrillers, and leaves the novel worth reading for its own sake.

A mesmerising, disturbing film about unearthing passion and controlling rage for the sake of relationships, Carol explores the limits of what people will accept and the territory they will not negotiate.

CREATING WAVESThe right to evade capture, to avoid being shut out emotionally, are portrayed as loudly as the sexual criminality of the era, and make a universal story out of what might otherwise have remained a period piece. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Carbon Cate’s direct action on the cultural cringe

HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC's Hedda Gabler.
HEDDING OVERSEAS Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in STC’s Hedda Gabler.

WITH a second Academy Award under her belt, Australian-born actress Cate Blanchett joined an international cultural elite, and it was fascinating to watch the response of the Australian media to her accolade.

This was particularly true of News Corporation, which dubbed her ‘Carbon Cate’ when she joined a 2011 advertising campaign encouraging Australians to understand the benefits of the Labor government’s Carbon Tax.

But by the day of the Oscar ceremony, The Daily Telegraph had reverted to calling Blanchett “Our Cate”.

Within minutes of her award, tall poppy syndrome had kicked-in, and News Corp’s news.com.au was questioning Blanchett’s contributions to the Australian film industry over the past decade.

The day after her historic win, which marked the first time an Australian actor won two Oscars, they buried Carbon Cate in the entertainment news, which is probably where they believe she belongs.

“It seems the cultural cringe is still alive and well in Australia.”

In case we need a reminder, ‘cultural cringe’ is the tendency of a colony to question the relevance of its artists against its ‘motherland’. It’s a kind of inferiority complex, if you like.

But this anti-intellectual process doesn’t only apply to the Arts.

When Barnaby Joyce leapt onto the ‘Carbon Cate’ bandwagon, he was taking a dig at someone he accused of being out of touch with economic realities.

He also had an agenda, which was not just anti-Cate, it was anti-science, and he probably knew very well that coining an alliterative derogatory term for his target would be highly effective.

So, it’s time for a reminder on the facts about Blanchett’s commitment to Australian industries and solutions to climate change.

Cate Blanchett is a local, who has lived with her family in the Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill for almost a decade.

In 2013 she ended a six-year stint as to co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (STC), work she admits put a dent in the time she could commit to an international film career, yet led to a golden era in Australian theatre exports.

Yes, that’s correct: Australian theatre, exported.

Despite the level of Australian Government funding for National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) students, the local film, television and theatre industries they graduate into would not stand comparison with the reach and profitability of any other similarly funded Australian industry.

Australian theatre particularly does not even register against our worst-faring industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing. A decade ago, NIDA graduate and Australian actor Jeremy Sims quite rightly described our theatre industry as a “cottage industry”.

Before Cate Blanchett played the title role in Hedda Gabler for STC in 2004, Australian international theatre tours were few and far between. But in 2006, STC took the production to New York, where it played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a limited but sold-out season. It was not quite a Broadway experience for the company, but the touring cast and key creative crew were Australian.

The experiment was repeated and expanded with STC productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya touring to NYC and Washington; and Gross und Klein, which toured to France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Like all good international trade, the experiment was a two-way street, including collaborations with America’s Artists Repertory Theatre, and international artist imports, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, and Isabelle Huppert, to work alongside local creatives.

With Blanchett’s star power attached, local and international sponsorship was attracted to match government funding.

Consequently hundreds of Australian theatre practitioners were employed in a viable industry which did more than break even, it made money.

And Blanchett was smart and generous enough to include Sydney Theatre Company in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, in front of one of the world’s largest live audiences.

It was a form of product placement which every fledging industry needs, and there was absolutely no inferiority about Blanchett’s description of STC as, “one of the great theatre companies in the world.”

AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC's The Maids.
AUSTRALIAN MAID Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett in STC’s The Maids.

When STC’s production of The Maids, starring Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, opened at New York’s Lincoln Center last August, the experiment moved from its start at the fringe of one of the largest theatre industries in the world, right to its heart.

Created in Sydney, and sold to the world, Australian theatre has never experienced such exposure, and it’s already had an effect on other Australian theatre companies, with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) matching STC’s international touring record with something of a coup.

Instead of touring in an American or European classic, the way STC has done, MTC showcased an original Australian play – David Williamson’s Rupert – a bio about News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch.

CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.
CREATING A STIR Cate Blanchett in the controversial 2011 Carbon Tax ad campaign.

Which brings us neatly back to Carbon Cate’s record of direct action on climate change.

In 2010, Blanchett and Andrew Upton, her co-artistic director and husband, oversaw the conversion of STC’s power supply to solar.

By the time they flicked the symbolic switch, which would light the company stages with energy from the sun, Blanchett’s appearance in the “Say ‘Yes’ to the Carbon Tax” commercial was still months away.

Her appearance in the commercial has undoubtedly been blown out of proportion over time. Michael Caton (who could easily have been dubbed ‘Carbon Caton’ but missed out on any ire from the Coalition) took the main role.

Blanchett was the last of the actors to appear, and her only line was simply: “And finally, doing something about climate change.”

In the light of STC’s conversion to solar, at the time one of this country’s largest solar capture operations, and the steps she and Upton had taken to ‘green’ their own home, Blanchett had earned the right to claim to have done something about climate change.

PLUCK COVER copyThe irony is, her actions were as close to the Coalition’s ‘direct action’ as it gets, which only proves that many in Australia are not ready for an artist to show the way, even one at the top of her game internationally, with her feet, and her creative heart, firmly planted in home soil.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded