Leave Elf on the shelf: why Carol should be at the top of everyone’s Christmas movie list
Todd Haynes’ bittersweet jewel has glam Cate Blanchett and ingenue Rooney Mara falling in love in the tinselly 50s, a must for sophisticated festive film fans
What’s the greatest Christmas film of all time? It’s the question that dominates the cultural discourse and the television schedules from basically mid-November each year. There are the Elf lovers; the diehard Die Hard fans; the acolytes of Miracle on 34th Street; the people living for It’s a Wonderful Life; those who will eschew nights out to watch Home Alone; and the fans who insist that the greatest Christmas film is Love Actually, actually.
I’m here to tell you that the greatest Christmas film of all time is, in fact, Todd Haynes’ Carol. It’s not a film that often comes up as a contender in the debate, and yet it has so much going to recommend it as top of the tree. (And much overlooked is that it’s literally called … carol).
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, the film follows the budding winter romance between the mid-divorce Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett) and Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet, an aspiring photographer who works unfulfilled at a Manhattan department store.
Early in the film, a flustered Carol picks out a present (a quaint wooden train set) for her daughter, aided by Therese wearing an employer-mandated Santa hat. Sure, Rowan Atkinson’s turn as the meticulous shop assistant testing Alan Rickman’s patience in Love Actually is great, but the subtle sexual tension between Carol and Therese as the purchase is completed is better. “I like the hat,” Carol teases in a whisper as she leaves, after some classic staring at lips and brushing of hands.
There is everything you’d expect from a film set at Christmas: the buying and decorating of a tree, the parties, the cocktails, the revellers spilling out on to the streets, the falling snow, the heavy coats and scarves, the visible breath in the cold air. But there’s also a road trip (including packed sandwiches) and stays in gritty, depressing motels. There’s an unbearably tense roast dinner with the in-laws, in which the topic of conversation is conversion therapy. There’s spying; there’s a gun. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
All the best Christmas films are those which include elements less saccharine than a candy cane. Lest we forget, a key plot point of Miracle on 34th Street is Kris Kringle being committed to the most famous psychiatric hospital in America.
Contrast this with, say, Deck the Halls (2006) in which Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick compete to find out who likes Christmas the most (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 6%). Or A December Bride (2016) in which two friends pretending to be a couple … end up a couple. Or remember Jack Frost (2008)? In which a kid’s dad is reincarnated as a snowman (enough said). Or the original schmaltz-fest, 1954’s White Christmas. And the less said about the multiple shlock Christmas film efforts of Tim Allen – a man with possibly the worst CV of all time, Toy Story aside – the better.
No, Carol is the seasonal film for grown-ups. Style and subtlety isn’t something that comes to mind when one thinks of Christmas films, but Haynes’ movie is beautiful: the muted tones of cinematographer Ed Lachman; Carter Burwell’s sumptuous piano-based score (performed by the Seattle Symphony orchestra); Phyllis Nagy’s script is perfect, as are the lines incorporated straight from Highsmith’s novel (“what a strange girl you are … flung out of space”).
Carol received critical acclaim, won awards, and has many enthusiasts, but it’s become a traditional December watch for the LGBT community in particular (with lesbians leading the fandom). Its simmering eroticism blows Jude Law and Cameron Diaz’s cuddly courtship in The Holiday out of the water, and it features surely the hottest sex scene ever committed to celluloid to take place in a single bed.
But most importantly, it bucks what has become known as the “bury your gays” trope, in which fictional non-heterosexual folk always suffer miserable – and often fatal – endings. As Blanchett puts it, Carol instead “ends with possibility, which is all any love affair can begin with”.
All of the emotions tied up with that very specific Christmas-to-new-year period are present. The ephemerality, the ambiguous feelings of transition. The peer pressure to have the perfect time with the perfect people. The simultaneity of seasonal community vibes but, somehow, often, the accent of loneliness. The wholesomeness, but also the hangovers. It’s all there. It’s a gift of a film. And not a reindeer in sight.