These days, it’s hard to be surprised by a love story in a film. We’ve seen endless permutations of romantic relationships – running the gamut from doomed to fated, blissful to tragic, underscored by varying degrees of love, lust and chemistry. There shouldn’t even be much of a surprise to the love story that forms the heart and soul of Carol – anyone who walks into the cinema will know that this is The Movie In Which Cate Blanchett And Rooney Mara Play Lesbians. And yet, Todd Haynes’ masterful, intoxicating film unfolds in a series of small, subtle surprises, culminating in one of the most profoundly affecting romances ever committed to film.
The film opens in New York, in the early 1950s. Christmas is right around the corner, and Therese (Mara) is working as a shop-girl in the toy section of a department store. She meets and serves dozens of people, but only one catches her eye: Carol (Blanchett), a poised, polished and seemingly perfect example of the many wives and mothers who frequent the store. On Therese’s recommendation, Carol buys a model train set for her daughter Rindy: an unusual Christmas present for a little girl that swiftly draws a connection between the two women.
Over the next hour, Carol shades colour and complexity into the world in which Carol and Therese live. When they find each other again through a pair of gloves misplaced by accident (or, perhaps, design), the two women share lunch, and a tune played on a piano. Carol invites Therese to her family home and, eventually, on a road trip that changes everything. Therese confesses her love of photography, and begins to ask awkward questions of Richard (Jake Lacy), her devoted, if somewhat callous, boyfriend. Through it all, Carol’s marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) crumbles apart, despite the fierce love they share for their daughter.
For much of its running time, Haynes’ film – an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking second novel, The Price Of Salt – unfolds at a deliberately unhurried pace that might alienate some, and bore others. Dramatic outbursts are kept to a bare minimum, chiefly coming from a raging Harge as he tries ever more desperately to cajole (or bully) Carol into remaining by his side. The growing tenderness between Carol and Therese deepens, not through flowery confessions of undying love, but in the exchanging of tentative glimpses, glances and smiles.
And yet, the heartbreaking magic woven throughout Carol comes from precisely these understated, measured moments. The aching, all-consuming affection between Carol and Therese blossoms in the film’s pockets of silence, as they study each other in a mirror, or share a conspiratorial smile over breakfast. Threats of death and danger surface, but in purely emotional terms, resonating all the more powerfully for never being literal. Indeed, it’s only when the film slips into its devastating final act – which simultaneously manages to warm hearts and shatter souls – that one begins to realise just how bewitching a spell Carol has cast in the silences and in-betweens.
To top it all off, there is so much at work in Phyllis Nagy’s wonderfully spare script that Carol practically begs to be excavated, pored over and studied at length. The love story at its heart works because Carol is a film about two women who are making their way towards each other through a world that often refuses to understand, accept or acknowledge them: not just as potential lovers, but also as people.
While never flaunting its excellent feminist and queer credentials, the film surprises by shining a spotlight so firmly on its women and their relationships, including a powerful supporting turn by Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol’s best friend and erstwhile paramour. The stories of these women are the backbone, the meat, the heart, the soul and the entire central nervous system of Carol. As characters, they alternate between strong and weak, tough and tender, as they make choices and sacrifices – between heart and home, family and self – that women are still making today.
It seems profoundly unnecessary to say that Carol’s trump card is Blanchett. It should be self-evident, a given – after all, for as long as she has made movies, she has unquestionably been the best thing about any film she’s in. And yet, she is completely transcendent here. In Blanchett’s hands, Carol manages to be unearthly – an exalted goddess on a pedestal – and utterly, completely human at the same time. In a wonderfully layered final scene with Harge, Carol’s controlled composure cracks apart, revealing the punishing depth of the pain she must undergo in order to be true to herself. Blanchett conveys it all with heartbreak to spare, radiating love, joy, misery or despair with barely perceptible changes in expression.
Mara, meanwhile, gives her finest performance to date, as a young woman teetering on the edge of becoming who she perhaps never realised she always wanted to be. Her Therese lingers quietly at the edges of her own life, not so much pushing limits as slipping past them to find her own way. It’s hard to shake the feeling, though, that Mara remains outclassed by her co-star. Unlike Carol, Therese never completely coalesces as a character in her own right. To be fair to Mara, that’s partly due to one of the script’s few flaws. In a film that is otherwise so subtle and considered, we are too often told rather than shown that Carol finds Therese irresistible. (There is no such problem in believing that anyone could fall head over heels for Carol.)
Nevertheless, the chemistry between Blanchett and Mara burns, slowly but brightly. The electricity between them throws off more sparks as the film goes on – to the point that audiences will find their hearts stuttering and stopping at the tiniest of moments: when Carol presses her hand lightly on Therese’s shoulder, or when their eyes meet, finally, across a crowded room.
In all of these elements, and in ways big and small, Carol constantly surprises. It could have been ripely melodramatic (in the style of Far From Heaven, Haynes’ deliberately arch tribute to the films of Douglas Sirk); instead, it lingers in a key of melancholy realism. In another universe, Carol might have been more manipulative, Harge more villainous, Therese more coquettish, the love story less compelling and more titillating. The film’s themes could have overwhelmed its central romance. And yet, in every gorgeous frame (composed with impeccable grace by cinematographer Edward Lachman), Carol sings of its love story: one that is as sweet as it is bitter, as simple as it is complex, and as real as it is magical.
Summary: A masterpiece that’s tough, tender and thoughtful, anchored by a love story for the ages.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars