This review was originally published during our coverage of LFF 2015.
Sadness and hope intertwine in Todd Haynes’ Carol, where a couple are caught in each other’s gravitational pull and the universe tries to tear them apart.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s much-loved 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol chronicles the romance between Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young New Yorker working in a department store, and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a married society mother. Set in the early 1950s, lesbianism (and homosexuality in general) is regarded as a mental disorder – even a hint of same-sex reaction inspires loathing and disgust.
Carol is already in deep water – after an affair with her daughter’s godmother she’s in the process of being divorced by her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile, Therese hasn’t seriously considered same-sex attraction, currently trudging through a bog-standard relationship with the upwardly mobile Richard (Jake Lacy). Therese’s trajectory through life feels pre-ordained: marry Richard, move out of the city, pop out a couple of kids, develop alcoholism in the 1970s and then die riddled with depression sometime in the 1990s. Worse, she can sense all this coming.
Then Carol and Therese’s lock eyes across a busy shop floor and the world drops out from under them. Smitten with each other, Carol ‘accidentally’ leaves her gloves on the counter and Therese returns them. The rest of the film chronicles their growing love as an uncaring, cruel and repressive society tries to obliterate it.
As a huge fan of Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), also set in the 1950s and also revolving around a socially forbidden romance (a white housewife falling in love with her black gardener), I was anticipating Carol to be a broadly similar experience. Famously, Far From Heaven is done in the style of 1950s melodrama king Douglas Sirk, with Haynes emulating Technicolor palettes, using incandescent lighting rigs and an actual Elmer Bernstein score.
Carol moves beyond homage, instead capturing some indefinable core of the repressive US of the 1950s. Gone are the super-saturated colours and slightly over-the-top dialogue, replaced by softer, more intimate stylings. Characters’ faces are often glimpsed through rainy car windows, overlaid by the blurred cityscapes that speed past them, conversations are punctuated with pregnant pauses and anguish is conveyed through quiet desperation rather than teary outbursts. It’s definitely more naturalistic, but it’s a rigorous, careful and mature naturalism.
This attention to detail shines through in Haynes’ precision when it comes to character interactions. Every touch is significant; when Carol casually brushes her hand across Therese’s shoulder, this extraordinarily brief motion fizzes with erotic significance. Practically every interaction between the two appears considered – with Haynes doing a particularly good line in painful looks of longing across busy rooms.
Of course, all of this would be academic without two excellent leads. Cate Blanchett is an incredibly safe pair of hands for this kind of drama – dress her in a fur coat, give her ruby red lipstick, pop a cigarette in her mouth and you’re good to go. Thing is, Blanchett is so consistently good that it’s easy to forget just how talented she is. In Carol, she deploys mannerisms so effective that they’re practically weaponized – mixing up a cocktail of dignified terror and deep longing? Who else working today can subtly and silently purse their lips and convey so much emotion?
Well, Rooney Mara’s Therese comes close. She begins the film nervy and bird-like – unsure of what she wants from the world. As her relationship with Carol blossoms, we watch Therese assemble her personality piece by piece, realizing her ambitions, her desires and what kind of person she wants to be. Cinematic rebellion often tends towards over the top displays of anger and violence, but Mara manages a subtler resistance that’s no less moving and keenly felt.
Aided by a wonderful supporting cast, with particular kudos to Kyle Chandler for making Carol’s unhappy husband Harge broadly sympathetic, Carol intelligently shows the audience what living a socially repressive society really means. No one character is moustache-twirlingly evil and we understand everyone’s motivations, even if they threaten the two women that we desperately hope will find happiness together. Haynes’ vision of discrimination comes as a death by a thousand cuts – a panoply of tiny individual decisions that form a monstrous social bondage.
As I think about Carol, I can’t help but think of the stone cold classic Brief Encounter (1945) – perhaps the greatest romance ever filmed. I don’t think Carol is as good as Brief Encounter, but even so both are love stories for the ages. After all, intense, instinctive attraction, and the torture of forbidden love will never be outdated.
Beautiful in practically every way, Carol is a touchingly romantic triumph.