With Carol, we have yet another film for which the title is just the name of the lead character. Is something a bit more imaginative too much to ask? Putting that irritation to one side, this is everything we have come to expect from Todd Haynes. It looks ravishing, with exquisite costume design from three-time Academy Award winner Sandy Powell, while the desaturated colour only serves to enhance the old-time aesthetic of this 1952-set romantic drama. Similar to Haynes’ 2002 effort Far from Heaven, Carol explores a relationship that, in the social context of the time, is far from conventional, very much a taboo and must be conducted in a most clandestine manner. The thought of two women falling in love is simply preposterous within the upper-class world inhabited by our titular wife and mother. Therefore, when Carol (Cate Blanchett) falls for much younger Therese (Rooney Mara), an emotional melodrama ensues as Carol tries desperately to free herself from the shackles of marriage whilst clinging to the lifestyle it provides. Therese is a comely shop assistant in a Manhattan department store with an interest in photography, while Carol possesses a forthright, and somewhat fake, persona that makes her hard to like, and therein lies the fundamental problem with a film that is otherwise top notch.
You see, Carol has a husband (Kyle Chandler) who still loves her, a wonderful young daughter and a lifestyle that would be the envy of so many at the time, but she just isn’t a very nice person. She treats everybody, including Therese, poorly, utterly consumed by her sense of self-importance. It is her stylish self-confidence that lures Therese into her orbit, lured by a glamorous persona that provides relief from her own dreary existence. Yes, this relationship develops at a time when homosexuality was illegal in many places, but it feels as though committing such an act of rebellion is just as much a motivation for Carol as any feelings she may have for Therese. There are long, longing stares and body language that often says much more than any words ever could as Carol and Therese communicate their mutual attraction with nary an utterance. It is a fascinating study of seduction and superficiality, Carol’s surface beauty contrasting sharply with the ugliness that lurks beneath. Even though the viewer learns more about the real Carol than Therese ever does, there are still a lot of questions that go unanswered with regard to the motivations for the things she does. However, when Carol does let her guard down, it is shocking because her surface is performed with such confidence and charisma.
Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy have taken some liberties in their adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel (titled The Price of Salt), such as the elimination of Therese’s backstory, making her even more of a mystery than Carol. However, Mara does a lot with a little, conveying the intimidation Therese feels in the presence of a complex older woman. When the two women set off on a road trip, ostensibly to consummate their relationship, the build-up to the moment proves far more sexually-charged than the moment itself.
Carol is gorgeous, filled with stunning sequences; many of which are staged inside cars. The action proceeds at a languid pace, but Haynes makes this tale of unhappiness so beautiful that you don’t mind at all. I mean, it’s not an action movie, so there is no need for everything to happen at a million miles an hour. The performances from both Blanchett and Mara are great, the former relishing the opportunity to play a ‘performer’ such as Carol. Every gesture – from lighting a cigarette to tossing her hair back – is deliberate and orchestrated for maximum allure. Anybody familiar with Far from Heaven should have some idea of what to expect with Carol. In its most successful moments, the film shows the loneliness of people not allowed to be who they are or simply not sure who they really are and it is these moments that resonate the most.