Carol is the sort of film that demands superlatives, but I will attempt to restrain myself as the film so often manages to. Watch me fail.
Todd Haynes has now, with his second updating of a 50s melodrama, sealed himself as the director of repression and characters who quietly find ways to subvert it. Far From Heaven, his remake of Douglas Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows (and to an extent an extension of Fassbinder’s 1974 remake of the same film as Ali: Fear Eats The Soul), was remarkable for keeping the historical setting and lush photography of the original film while engaging in the more progressive social commentary of the Fassbinder film. Here, Haynes engages in a fairly straight faced adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, and though it is the first time he has worked from somebody else’s script, Phyllis Nagy’s work retains plenty of wit, without the detached irony which permeated some of Haynes’ earlier films. Carol is about the romance between Cate Blanchett’s titular housewife, undergoing an increasingly messy divorce, and Rooney Mara’s Therese, a department store worker who finds herself beguiled by the older woman. They go on a road trip, face obstacles from the men in their lives and society at large. The plot is slight but never loses momentum, we can feel this building to a certain crescendo.
Credit must go to the performances. Blanchett is now entering the theatrical, Streepian phase of her career (or perhaps she was always there) but her drawl and occasional histrionics work in favour of the character here. This is a melodrama, after all. And great supporting work is done by Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson and Jake Lacy, who to my great delight finally proves that he is more than just the charming romantic interest! But truly the film belongs to Rooney Mara, who shows incredible versatility in the role, developing from naive, unfulfilled city girl to prototypical modern woman. She is brutish one minute and tender the next, laconic, with eyes that pierce through the soul of the very film. She takes on the qualities of the whole film.
This is a film of such texture, I had to stop myself from trying to reach out to the screen and touch it. It’s not just the costumes, which are lavishly designed by Haynes’ oft collaborator Sandy Powell, or the immaculate set design, but the way that Haynes draws attention to to the various elements of the film. The way the light hits Blanchett’s neck as Mara gazes upon it, her fur coat flowing in slow motion, the pair trying out perfumes in a dimly lit room, or Therese luxuriating in an armchair at the grand hotel they have just checked themselves into. ‘I have never looked like that,’ Carol states when she sees Therese naked for the first time. It is a sensual experience, heightened by the secrecy of it all. The characters finding pleasure in the smallest moments, and how that imprints itself upon on the memory, is searingly effective.
And never is this clearer than the moment when Carol and Therese share a look that lasts for mere seconds, but with the weight of the film surrounding it, seems also to last forever, a gaze so intense that it is surely burnt into these women’s memories forever. This is a scene that is replayed twice in the film, from the perspective of an outsider at first, and then again nearer the end when we have more relationship to the moment. It is illuminating and heartbreaking, and when in the final scene another look is shared, with a remarkably different context, it brings the entire film full circle in an emotionally enriching way.
Carol has been criticised by some as being too opaque, but the true wonder of this film is that even when nothing is said, the intentions of every scene are perfectly clear. Therese desperately phones Carol, begging her to pick up, and when she does, the pair sit on either end of the phone, not saying a word. The scene lasts for minutes, but the longing and internal struggle of the characters is represented by Carol’s immaculate nails hovering over the telephone’s switch hook, the pain in their eyes. This is a story told through eyes, a glance across a room, or a deep, searching look. This is how lovers, especially clandestine ones, operate. This is how they communicate. And through this Haynes plants us firmly inside the relationship. Because Therese and Carol don’t just look at each other, they look at us, too.