Stories of Survival: 'Room' and 'Carol'

Stories of Survival: 'Room' and 'Carol'

Kristen Field

The two films that have had the greatest impact on me this awards season are Room, adapted from Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name (by Emma Donoghue herself) and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and Carol, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and that screenwriter (and friend of the late Highsmith) Phyllis Nagy worked on for almost 18 years, until Todd Haynes finally came on board and gave the project the momentum it needed to arrive in cinemas and in our collective consciousness.

On the surface, it might seem like these two movies couldn’t be more different, but they both depict their own stories of triumph over adversity (as clichéd as that may sound). The circumstances that the central characters in each of these films have to face might seem so terrible to us, the audience, that we can’t help but wonder why they just don’t give up, fall down on the floor and curse the world for dealing them blows that would have less steadfast women looking for an out – any out.

But they don’t give up. In Room, Joy Newsome, a woman who was abducted at the age of seventeen, had a child two years later, and has spent seven years in total locked in a garden shed while being repeatedly raped by her captor, doesn’t give up hope that she and her son might one day escape and return to the world.

She still has days when she’s ‘gone’ – lying limply in bed and refusing to even look at her son, Jack, as he runs around the tiny shed that he doesn’t even see as tiny (this is his whole world, literally, because Joy has taught him that this is all there is – that outside of Room is just sky and space and aliens who can’t seem to hear them, no matter how loud they scream).

And then, once they finally escape from Old Nick and get out of the shed, there’s the matter of re-acclimating to the outside world – or, in Jack’s case, experiencing the outside world for the first time. This transition seems almost more harrowing for Joy than the seven years she spent locked up, having to finally face the reality of what she’s gone through once she’s back in the context of her old life and her family.

Sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom and going through a yearbook with Jack next to her, Joy stops on a photo of her with her arms around three other girls, all of them in athletic gear. She explains that they were all on the relay team together – that she was the anchor, and that she was really fast.

‘You know what happened to them?” She asks her son. He says no. ‘Exactly,’ Joy says, but she seems to be talking to herself now, and you cans see the darkness in her eyes, taking over her whole mind. ‘Nothing. They just lived their lives and nothing happened.’

The characters in both of these films refuse to let others take their lives away from them, and that is truly a joy to bear witness to, even more so because of the darkness they have to overcome.

The total randomness of the devastation she’s had to experience could easily consume her, stopping her from living the life she has left, that she’s fought to get back – no matter how painful it will inevitably be, stuck forever in the shadow of those seven years.

She doesn’t drown in that darkness, though. In order to avoid spoiling the entire movie for you, I’ll just say that she isn’t able to remember how to swim on her own. She needs help – she needs someone else to remind her that there is light amidst all that darkness.

The performances that Brie Larson and the revelatory Jacob Tremblay give in Room are reason enough to see the film, but I cannot even put into words how beautifully sparse the screenplay is and how stunning the visuals are – Danny Cohen’s cinematography is astounding.

The same goes for Carol, brilliantly shot by Edward Lachman in a way I can only describe as breathtaking. It was the three female characters at the centre of the story, though – played by Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Sarah Paulson – that truly resonated with me when watching the film.

When asked (before Carol was officially released) whether she would care about how it performed in terms of the box office, Nagy responded: ‘I mean, I think this kind of film should do well in order for other films like this be made. That’s really my concern.’ This reaction speaks to the undeniable invisibility of lesbian stories in the past, and the relative tragedy of such stories when they are told.

It used to be that the authors of lesbian pulp novels weren’t allowed to write an uplifting ending for any of their characters – unless they had a change of heart and fell in love with a man – and while I totally appreciate (and in part agree with) the argument that it would be a disservice to brush over or ignore the marginalisation and grief experienced by so many lesbians, both in the past and still today, it almost seems like a weak excuse to continue sending (fictional) lesbians into the depths of despair – or, in extreme cases, to their death.

The Price of Salt, published in 1952, was a metaphorical flip of the bird to these unspoken rules about the nature of lesbian narratives (authors could write what they wanted, obviously, but that didn’t mean that anyone would publish it).

The three queer female characters in the story are certainly dealt their fair share of blows: Carol, for one, loses custody of her only child because her husband sends a detective after her who records her sleeping with another woman; Therese, the object of Carol’s affection, has to deal with her fiancé’s bigotry and go through the pain of being rejected by the woman she loves before Carol eventually returns to her; and Abby, Carol’s best friend and first female lover, has to look on as all of this takes place, knowing that Carol will never look at her the way she looks at Therese – that her love will never be returned.

Artwork courtesy of  Relly Coquia .

Artwork courtesy of Relly Coquia.

This is all very much doom and gloom, as is pretty much the case whenever we go back more than a couple of decades and look at attitudes towards the LGBTQI community and other marginalised groups at that particular point in time. The difference, though, in my mind, is that Carol and Therese are given the opportunity to try to forge a life with one another, regardless of the obstacles that they will no doubt have to face.

True, they weren’t locked in a shed for seven years and aren’t dealing with the incomprehensible anguish of having to come to terms with years of physical and mental abuse, but they are dealing with a trauma of their own.

The world they live in – this fictional but still very real world of 1950’s New York – did not want them to survive as they people they wanted to be. But they didn’t care. Carol goes after Therese, after being told by a judge (and her ex-husband, and many others) that her predilections made her an unfit mother, and Therese takes her back, regardless of the hurt Carol has caused her and how much danger their love places them in – how much easier it would be to go back to her fiancé, and tell him she made a mistake.

All of this is pushed aside, all in the name of a truer, more pure love – and life. And I suppose we should be grateful that this is a story that can be told today, that actors are grateful to be a part of and that audiences are grateful to have the chance to see.

The characters in both of these films refuse to let others take their lives away from them, and that is truly a joy to bear witness to, even more so because of the darkness they have to overcome.

Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.