London Film Festival: Carol and Sunset Song

Two of our finest gay filmmakers, Todd Haynes and Terence Davies, are screening two exceptional women’s pictures, Carol and Sunset Song, at this year’s London Film Festival

Feature by Ian Mantgani | 16 Oct 2015


The postwar boom of 1950s America has by now been roundly picked apart for its veneer of suburban utopia masking repression underneath, but Todd Haynes’s tackling of this period and theme is something of a personal infatuation. In his 2002 film Far from Heaven, Haynes gave us Julianne Moore in a forbidden interracial romance and Dennis Quaid in a clandestine homosexual affair, packaged as a pastiche of Douglas Sirk melodrama. His new film Carol (★★★★) again visits the gorgeousness of the era, but strips away the layer of stylistic tribute, going for direct, searing drama.

Rooney Mara stars as Therese Belivet, a department store clerk and amateur photographer, who meets an older married woman named Carol Aird over the counter during the Christmas rush. Carol is played by Cate Blanchett as wealthy, haughty, difficult, sharp – and completely enchanting. The two women start a relationship, beginning cautiously, evolving into a romantic road trip across America (“Where are you going?” “As far as my car will take me”). But any hope of this tryst continuing pleasantly is dashed by Carol’s concurrent divorce proceedings, when her husband (Kyle Chandler) finds out about her affairs with women and threatens to use a legal ‘morality clause’ to stop her getting custody of their child.

Carol is a vision of an era when homosexuality in America was punishable and women were prisoners of men. It’s also a vision of Technicolor hues, elegant long-sleeved dresses, classic cars and the lustre of cigarette smoke. And it’s a romance between two beautiful and passionate but frightened women. It is a vision of lust – illicit lust between people, and Haynes’s conflicted lust for an era, which he views with both nostalgia for its aesthetics and bitter regret for its social contradictions. The film never really goes for crescendo, rather it simmers a cauldron of heated but restrained emotions and sensations – gorgeously.

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Sunset Song

With Sunset Song (★★★★★), Terence Davies has taken one of the most renowned works of Scottish literature and turned it into one of the great British screen epics. This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic is so rich and powerful that we hope Davies will get a crack at adapting the rest of A Scots Quair trilogy – it stays true to Davies’s lushly pained, deliberate style and builds into a sweeping chronicle of land and emotion that could fairly be called a Scottish answer to Gone with the Wind.

The heroine is Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a village girl whose dreams of being a schoolteacher transform into bearing the burdens of family and farming. In the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the early 20th century, she comes of age to see the beginning of machine ploughing, the cruel discipline of her father (Peter Mullan), the decline and death of her mother, her own sexual awakening and eventual marriage, and the ravages of the First World War, including on her husband (Kevin Guthrie).

Partly shot on 70mm, Sunset Song is large, radiant and overwhelming. Deyn is a revelation, showing sensitivity and strength as a character who shoulders the weight of her own growing pains, her fight to keep her farm alive and the force of sometimes tragic historical change. This is a sorrowful and quietly angry film, as well as one of exquisite scope and humanity – one of the best of the festival, and of the year overall.

Notes from the Twitteratti:

London Film Festival runs until 18 Oct

Carol is released is released 27 Nov

Sunset Song is released 4 Dec