After Carol’s tender yet suffocating tale of sexual repression, comes Lenny Abrahamson’s emotionally dishonest Room.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Mother nature in ‘Carol’ and ‘Room’

Brie Larsen with Jacob Tremblay in Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room’
Brie Larsen with Jacob Tremblay in Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room’

In this story

Todd Haynes is a rarity in the anglophone film world, a director who combines fierce intelligence with compassion. His new film, Carol – based on the novel The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, and starring Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese, two women falling in love in New York in the early 1950s – is a work of quiet dignity. It is an assured and elegant film, understated in the writing, the very fine cinematography and in particular in the unforced period mise-en-scène. The colour palette is wintry and subdued, immediately drawing us in to the intellectually repressed world of the Cold War era.

Anxiety is the dominant emotion in the film, both for Carol, who exists in an upper-class world of country clubs and establishment money, but also for Therese and her bohemian New York friends. Haynes, and writer Phyllis Nagy, take their audience’s maturity and intelligence as a given and so it is assumed that we will come to the film aware of the political environment that frames the intimate chamber drama of the love story. These are lives lived under a culture of surveillance and fear, self-internalised to such an extent that truth must be interpreted between the lines or gleaned through that which remains unsaid. This is true for Carol and Therese, but it also affects every relationship we encounter, whether marriage, friendship or collegiate. Though the film is always confident, so that we are never impatient or bored with the unfolding story, the cumulative effect is surprisingly exhausting. I can’t recall another film that so aptly has conveyed the wearying burden of a life lived in half-light and secrets. Coming out of the cinema, getting out to the street, I found myself hungrily gulping for air.

It may be that Haynes’s democratic instincts, his fairness to his characters that has been a trait throughout his film work, militates against some of the dramatic urgency of the original novel. In the book, Carol’s husband, Harge, played here by Kyle Chandler, is an almost absent figure. Our point of view is that of Therese and it is through her we understand that he is using the custody over his and Carol’s daughter as a way of punishing his ex-wife. In the film, Carol is given a scene at the lawyer’s office where she advocates a more egalitarian and benevolent attitude to marriage and its dissolution, one that ultimately Harge, albeit half-heartedly, accepts. It is a rousing speech and Blanchett is majestic during it, remaining fully in control of both the material and the desires of a mid 20th-century woman. But the effect is to lessen the stakes for her and Therese.

There is a darkly comic edge to The Price of Salt, a subterranean vein of humour that undermines the romanticism of the narrative. Carol is attractive, debonair and experienced; the younger Therese, who is working as a shopgirl at Christmas when they first meet, is callow and timid. The comedy is in how we understand fully the older woman falling head over heels for someone who is ostensibly not her equal. And the great kick in the guts in the novel is in how Therese, through the intense experience of first falling in love, cannot put aside selfishness and obsession: her jealousy is of such nakedness that she even resents Carol’s child. L’amour fou is central to the novel in a way that it isn’t in the film, and so our response to the latter is muted, and our feelings towards Therese less contradictory. Rooney Mara is excellent in her early scenes and we get a real sense of a young person resenting but also taking refuge in their shyness and naivety. But the performance doesn’t develop from there: we never get a sense of her rage and her jealousy.

Carol is such a good movie that it seems churlish to have the reservations that I do about it. But I do wonder if there is a perversity to Highsmith’s work that eludes Haynes’s talents. That might seem an odd statement to make about a filmmaker so centrally identified with the New Queer Cinema, but there is no cruelty in his work. I still recall my euphoria coming out of his 1995 film, Safe, a satire of the New Age and consumption that refused ridicule and smugness. His inclination is to soften both Harge and Therese, even if that is to the detriment of the story he is telling.

But what is undoubted in his work is his care and commitment to his actors. Cate Blanchett’s incarnation of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There was unforgettable, a collaboration between director and actor that made those of us who are of subsequent generations truly understand the audacity and shock that a ’60s audience must have felt confronting the androgyny of post-Beatles rock’n’roll. I think she’s even better in Carol, giving a performance that refuses glibness and affectation, making a suburbanite bourgeois woman truly heroic. And though she has little screen time, Sarah Paulson as her friend Abby is also terrific.

The final scene of the film made me forget all my doubts. It is a use of the subjective camera that in a few short moments distils the hunger and fear that all of us have experienced in our desperate hope of transcendence in love. It is played out wordlessly: all is communicated through the intensity of Blanchett and Mara’s performances. It is a knockout and, trust me, truly unforgettable.

If Haynes and his collaborators have a surfeit of compassion, Lenny Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue, the director and writer respectively of Room, could do with more of it. Based on Donoghue’s novel, the film is about a young woman, Joy, aka Ma, played by Brie Larson, who is abducted and kept prisoner and a sexual slave in a tiny room. She has had a son to her lunatic abductor, and the first part of the film details how she attempts to normalise and make benign the horror of her situation for her child, Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay.

The first part of the film, when we as an audience are trapped in the dark and claustrophobic space of the room, is grimly compelling. We are gradually introduced to the fantasy that Ma is concocting for her son, trying to make the four walls of their prison a magical world.  But once their escape happens, and Ma and Jack are returned to her family, the film quickly becomes a mess. In part, this is because Abrahamson is a doggedly prosaic director and the colour palette of the film remains unchangingly monochromatic even once the mother and child are back in the suburban world. Jack’s initial perceptions of the world outside the room are clichéd montages of cloud and sky, and his grandmother’s house is rendered as uniformly drab and sterile. We have no sense of the awe and wonder that the little boy might experience in having the whole universe open for him. It is clear why these choices have been made. The filmmakers want to indict suburbia for its banality but the decision is completely wrongheaded. They are trying to graft their urban and liberal sensibilities onto the consciousness of a child and our trust in the material quickly evaporates.

But there is a more damaging problem at the heart of this film, a refusal to fully engage with the complex emotional and psychological contradictions embodied in the story. I lost my patience in a particularly rancid scene where Joy’s father, played by William H. Macy, conveys his feelings of estrangement from his grandchild. No matter how ugly and unthinking his disavowal, it speaks to an emotional truth, of the consequences that such traumatic violence has on our relationships with others. But rather than take seriously the trauma inflicted on a parent who has had their child disappear for years, and the subsequent knowledge of that child’s abuse, the filmmakers piously condemn him for not having an appropriate response. The grandfather disappears and is not heard of again, and the filmmakers can concentrate on the real focus of their ire: middle-class conformity and the mass media.

The real question to ask is why a film so inept and false as Room has been garnering such positive critical attention. The same might be asked of the acclaim for Brie Larson’s one-note and priggish performance. I have a hunch. Room marries the shallow empowerment of the self-help manual with the puritanical strains of a certain form of contemporary progressive politics. The ending suggests that Jack will be protected from the consequences of growing up in abuse, in part because of the stoic determination of his mother. But Ma isn’t a real woman: she’s the Virgin Mary. It is as if no one involved has thought through the consequences of this child growing into adolescence with such a damaged and overbearing parent. Or worse: they have, and their conclusion is he should be kept a boy-child forever. If you have been craving a feel-good movie about sexual abuse, then Room is the film for you.


1 . Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA Sugar Mountain 2016

Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, January 23

CULTURE Australia Day Ferrython

Sydney Harbour, January 26

THEATRE Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River

SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, until January 30

COMEDY Nick Offerman: Full Bush

State Theatre, Sydney, January 28-29

Theatre Royal, Hobart, January 30

Hamer Hall, Melbourne, January 31, February 9

Astor Theatre, Perth, February 2-3

Festival Theatre, Adelaide, February 4

QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, February 5-6

Last chance

OPERA The Rabbits

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until January 24

FAMILY Dirtgirl’s Get Grubby Musical

Playhouse, Sydney, until January 24

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 23, 2016 as "Mother love".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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