Release Date: November 20th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Romance
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara
A fateful glance across a shop floor ignites this grandly passionate yet earnestly personal love story. It is that classic meeting of the eyes moment, and eyes end up playing a huge part Todd Haynes’ tale — store clerk Therese’s (Rooney Mara) are expectant and uncertain whereas socialite Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) mask a painful truth. The two women subsequently have a conversation: “Shopping makes me nervous,” confesses the latter. “Working here makes me nervous,” replies Therese. Really their nerves are a product of each woman’s attraction to the other, the initial spark of excitement that could burn out or, potentially, flicker into something more fiery.
For many, Therese will be the more relatable of the two. She is the amateur embarking on a new adventure, full of excitement and trepidation. A femme fatale with a conscience, Carol must juggle instinct and desire against her past experiences. We’ll get to that. On a surface level, the film is practically faultless. Therese dons comfy woolly hats and patchwork scarves. Conversely, Carol is always decked out in the finest looking garments, and while she attends sophisticated parties entertained by brass bands, her soon-to-be other half drinks down the local. The aesthetics, though nice to look at, are completely beside the point. In fact, class and social standing are hardly acknowledged — the barrier holding back romance is society’s unwillingness to accept human nature.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, the screenplay is at times too self-aware. Words don’t feel forced, but convenience does play its part: initiated by her male friend, Therese happens to have a spur-of-the-moment conversation about attraction shortly after meeting Carol. At worst, the script is a product of its naive time period and perhaps this makes it a bit less emotionally involving than something like Blue is the Warmest Colour (a film that can more easily evade ideas of social vilification and instead channel its energy into character-driven ideals).
On the flip side, these abrupt conversations about perceived cultural faux pas work because they incorporate notions of identity, and the film is an exploration of exactly that: Therese is still searching for her identity and has nothing to lose; Carol knows who she is, but is losing everything as a result. We often see the former gazing longingly out of shaded car windows, her face hidden beneath layers of sleet or rain, the suggestion being we’ve yet to see the real her. A delectable soundtrack matches the mood at any given time — Billie Holiday’s “Easy Living” is a particular highlight. The film is dripping in romantic overtures, it has to be, but there is a sincerity at play aided by grounded performances that steer the piece clear of potential sappiness.
And Carol, like John Crowley’s Brooklyn, is at its very best when its two muses are together on screen. With poise and consideration, their chemistry develops naturally. Whereas Carol is outwardly confident, oozing the sultry vibe of classic Hollywood star, Therese looks and sounds like a student taking extra lessons from her tutor during lunch break — she is initially on edge, bumbling, unsure of her standing with Carol. The characterisation is far from black-and-white though; both women evolve and devolve as their relationship gains and loses momentum.
Carol, for instance, is a bit of a mess herself, elegance shielding her crumbling home life. This fractured domesticity constantly gets in the way, even when she and Therese take a festive road trip (like Die Hard, this could end up being another go-to Christmas flick that isn’t actually about Christmas). The desires of husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) constantly linger and, sure enough, he bursts into view at the most inopportune moments. Chandler spends the entirety of proceedings with a grimace tattooed to his face. Harge isn’t a bad guy in fairness, but his attempts to hamper Carol’s relationship with her daughter, whom she loves dearly, are unsavoury. Sarah Paulson also shows up as Carol’s confidant, Abby, and is excellent as the realist with a heart.
Edward Lachman’s crackling cinematography warms us to the wintry 1950s cityscape. His camera glides around our central protagonists as they test the amorous fumes with slight touches, the lens fully aware sparks are flying and waiting for the right moment to engage — when intimacy inevitably erupts it’s expertly judged and as far from gratuitous as can be. The framing is also a joy to watch: one particular still shot splits the screen in half, on the left depicting Carol behind a doorway and on the right emphasising a picture of a ship caught in stormy waters. These instances are indicative of an outing clearly in love with the filmmaking process, and there is even a nod to the projectionists of yesteryear (and those valiant few still standing). Aspiring screenwriters get a shout-out too: “What I wanna do is write, that’s why I watch movies.”
If cinema interests you in any way, chances are you’re already well aware of the buzz surrounding both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and don’t need me to bolster an already sturdy case. Director Todd Haynes knows his actors are the driving force behind Carol’s success and rightly lets them get on with it. For what it is worth, the two are collectively and individually excellent: Mara’s subtle development is a joy to watch and a legal scene played with heartbreaking authenticity by Blanchett is the type that wins awards. The Aussie ought to invest in another trophy cabinet.