Directed by Todd Haynes, the preeminent writer of women’s stories for his generation, “Carol” is a film completely driven by the weight of reason and accountability found within its female lead characters set in the pre-feminist 1950s. Played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara, we witness two flawed women formulating the capacity to reason with the undeniable truths they find in their hearts, while understanding the ramifications and accountability that comes from acting on those feelings. “Carol” is a fascinating and empowering love story, no matter what label you associate for your identity or disposition.
Mara plays Therese Belivet, a Czech immigrant and quiet wallflower living on her own in 1952 and working in the toy department of a department store in New York City. She is dazzled by a well-to-do woman bathed in a fur coat and finery named Carol Aird (Blanchett) who peruses her department. Carol notices Therese’s attention and ends up approaching her and buying a train set for her daughter from Therese’s recommendation. Carol mistakenly leaves her gloves on the counter and Therese tracks her down to return them. Continuing their interaction, Carol seeks to spend more time with Therese as an acquaintance. She invites Therese out for drinks and later to her home.
The shy Therese, an aspiring amateur photographer at heart, is engendered by Carol’s attention and finally feels connected to someone more than her on-and-off-again suitor Richard (Jake Lacey). Carol too feels a growing bond that is absent in her life, save for Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson), her only other close friend and godmother to her daughter. Carol is going through a tenuous divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who is suspicious of Therese’s place as a conversational, creative, and soulful outlet. To get away from the stresses of home, Carol proposes that she and Therese leave town on a road trip through the holiday season. They don’t tell anyone, set off west from New York, and continue to form a closer bond.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both first-rate and fearless at receiving Todd Haynes’s direction in this film. There is a comfort and cadence that is smooth as glass. Both actresses breathe fervency and intuition into these two literary characters. Blanchett has always been able to transcend beauty with solemnity and is in top form in “Carol.” Moreover, it is a welcome and beautiful thing to see the normally vacant Rooney Mara actually smile, especially after this fall’s lackluster “Pan.”
Skipping a narration that would spell out too much of that written prose, Todd Haynes lets his direction takeover and the acting handle what is unspoken. The director cited David Lean’s 1945 film “Brief Encounter” and the classic work of New York photographer Saul Leiter as inspirations and touchstones for “Carol.” On screen, there is a seamless shift of protagonists between the two women. He challenges us to create our own interpretation of the unseen conflict and monologue taking place within Carol and Therese. These are all creative choices and brushstrokes of a true auteur. Such brilliant direction is visible throughout “Carol” and represents a masterpiece-level accomplishment for Haynes.
The film’s aesthetic look and artistic detail are gorgeous. Carter Burwell’s musical score grabs you immediately and Sandy Powell’s costume designs are exquisite. Patricia Regan’s makeup department transforms the people and statures of “Carol” to a bygone era. With fascinatingly rich ambiance, production designer Judy Becker and art director Jesse Rosenthal used old and un-modernized sections of Cincinnati, Ohio to imitate the architecture, signage, and style of the old boroughs of New York City. Rarely has an historic urban aesthetic looked so ethereal from top to bottom. Further credit for the film’s winning look is earned by cinematographer and long-time Haynes collaborator Edward Lachman to move the camera through foggy windows, reflections, doorways, and casual crowds about these settings to lock onto our characters’ focus with skills and precision.
“Carol” is adapted from author Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, the romance “The Price of Salt” from 1952, a stark departure from her Tom Ripley-based reputation for suspense. The novel has long since been championed by lesbians, homosexuals, and feminists. The film’s screenplay, a first written by British dramatist Phyllis Nagy, matches the novel’s goal to find happiness during a time period where such a possibility was thought to be impossible and unacceptable for people of LGBT orientation.
Nagy masterfully mines the emotional nuance and the escalating passion from the printed page. The film slowly builds its fullness and does not make a single misstep to sacrifice its storytelling. The final scene of Carol and Therese meeting in a hotel lounge completes a framing device from the first. Seeing these characters before and after this cinematic arc, your patience is rewarded by the quality and quiet beauty of “Carol.”
Lesson #1: The repression of sexual desire and expression in the pre-feminist era— Open desire and expression of sexuality was once greatly repressed. Even curiosity beyond heterosexuality was frowned upon. Feelings and longings in those directions were damning and left unspoken. The film and the novel it is based on gives such romantic desires an experimental playing field where love shines through and happiness can be found.
Lesson #2: Submission versus selfishness–When Carol and Therese find undeniable feelings and desires in the film, societal pressure pushes them away from what their conscience tells them is right. Choosing to go against the dignified norms would be labeled as selfish, especially for Carol with a husband and daughter. For either woman to choose to stay in line with the cultural expectations of conduct, they deny what their heart, body, and soul feels are right and cave to submission.
Lesson #3: The power of physical touch— There is a confidence-building intimacy that comes from physical touch. Touches of familiarity and assurance come before moves that lead to great sensitivity and arousal. In each form, physical touch creates connections, bonds, memories, sensations and personal experiences. The camera captures lingering examples of these moments at all levels throughout “Carol” and they build the film’s powerful resonance.