Directed: Todd Haynes
Written: Phyllis Nagy (from the novel by Patrica Highsmith)
In the grand tradition of all films that have scored my highest rating, this film won’t be for everyone. In fact, a friend of mine told me afterwards that he spent the whole film waiting for something to happen. I’ve read reviews about contrived plots and too-early reveals, about there being a coldness to Carol that was difficult to connect with, not believing the chemistry between the characters, about the film being… well...boring.
I’ve read and heard all the critiques, and I for one reject the lot. For me, something was happening every moment. With every twitch of her face, every stare, every drag on a cigarette, Cate Blanchett transforms herself into something new. She expresses a different emotion, evokes a new reaction in her audience, reveals a new part to her personality. It’s a strange and ethereal gift she has, and when used within the beautiful environs of a Todd Haynes-conceived world, it creates something magical.
Based on a long-loved story by Patricia Highsmith (and I believe one of the first mainstream lesbian novels to feature a happy ending), Carol tells the story of a young shopgirl and aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), and her chance meeting and subsequent entanglement with an older married woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). The film is, much like Todd Haynes’s masterpiece Far From Heaven, an exercise in emotional and visual authenticity.
Therese is dissatisfied with her life, looking for meaning and adventure, but she's very young. Her sexuality is not truly defined – she’s undecided on a lot of things, her career, her life, her relationship with her perfectly nice but boring boyfriend. She’s waiting for the next stage of her life to begin, frustrated by being unable to grab the chances she needs to make it happen. Then, one day, she meets the hypnotic, beautiful Carol, who appears calm and controlled, but is anything but. Therese sees almost immediately Carol is struggling to maintain a veneer of respectability, while living her own private hell. She knows she shouldn't, but she can't do anything but follow.
Carol is separated from her husband Herge (Kyle Chandler, for once playing a less sympathetic role) and is fighting a battle to maintain both her independence and joint custody of her beloved daughter. Her only confidante is good friend and former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), who is a wild spirit, completely unconstrained by and dismissive of social rules, but also bound to Carol through a strong friendship – and perhaps unrequited love? – that has persisted through the years.
The film is told primarily from Therese's point of view (but not exclusively as in the novel), and we feel her unwillingness to conform to just being a wife and mother, but also her fear of the alternatives.
She needs Carol’s insistence, her strength, to pull her along for the journey that they are embarking upon, both physical (a driving trip across the country) and emotional. Carol is incredibly strong, capable of cutting off her own feelings for the sake of her daughter, and too strong-willed in the end to allow even a love for a child get in the way of her self-determination.
Her strength is all the more interesting for its one curious weakness. Therese cuts to her heart almost from the first moment, and the conflict that plays within Carol is palpable. Carol at first seems to convince herself this is just a pleasant, temporary distraction from her troubles. Then a possible friendship. Then unexpected passion, a curiosity. Then blind need. And then… a struggle for her own self. Even when she knows unequivocally that her relationship with Therese will cost her everything, she surprises herself by being willing to pay that price.
It seems that until the very end even Carol doesn’t really know why she does it. Even she doesn’t recognise the signs of love until almost too late, and when she does, the stripped-back, raw Carol that Blanchett presents is exquisite and painful to watch. When all the power shifts from Carol to Therese, the young girl must make what is possibly the first real adult, mature decision of her life. The final scene of the film, as we begin to understand what the future of this couple will hold, is excruciating, desperate and wonderful.
This is a true psychological drama, with emotional clues to be picked up and dissected along the way. It’s about love, social mores, age versus youth, the class system, the relationships between men and women, and finally just the bonds between women, be it friendship or love. There's also plenty of passion. Blanchett is on record as saying she was nervous about filming the love scenes, but you would never know it. Or maybe the nerves played into it. It’s awkward and sweet, and Haynes directs it with just the right mixture of both longing and fear.
Rooney Mara is extraordinary, and she had a far different role to play to keep this film alive. I don’t want to overlook how effortlessly she seemed to convey the charm and naivete of Therese. But truly, Blanchett is sublime. I’ve long been a fan, but often her performances can border on overwrought. This performance was so different – in Blue Jasmine she was all desperation and deceit, but Carol is all self control and poise (Carol practically shakes sometimes with the effort to maintain the facade), with an underlying passion she wants to live out but can’t, or won't, break free of her life to finally do it.
Shot gloriously, costumed perfectly, filmed through half-opened doors and reflected in mirrors, down from windows and up from the ground, swirling sometimes like a kite through the air until we land harshly on the cold ground, Haynes has produced a masterpiece world for his masterful actresses to play in. If I had one small criticism it would be that preserving some of the specific phrases from the book sometimes lifted us out of the magic. They seemed so odd and literary even Blanchett struggles to make them sound natural, but it's a small bug in what is overall a sleek, bold, mesmerising, desperate statement about the nature of love.