Carol adds another entry to the current trend of films released sporting festive names (see: Joy) that prompt notions of a dramatic Christmas tale, but in fact have little to do with the festive season. Starring Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Rooney Mara (Side Effects), Carol is instead an intoxicating story of forbidden romance that entrances through its lead’s stunning performances. Based on the groundbreaking novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the films explores a love shunned by society and hidden in secrecy, told under the careful hand of director, Todd Haynes (I’m Not There).
Set in a 1950’s New York, Therese (Mara) works as a sales assistant in a department store, seemingly restless and discontent with her life in retail and her kind-of boyfriend (Jake Lacey). That is, until she encounters Carol (Blanchett), a woman looking for a birthday present for her daughter. The two are immediately enchanted with one another, engaging in a flirtatious back and forth, which leads to Carol inviting Therese to her home and more. While already aware of her bisexual history with past lover and friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) is flung into a jealous mission to divorce her and gain full custody of their daughter when he discovers the existence of her new relationship. Now on an impulsive road trip to get away, Carol takes Therese on a journey that forces the two women to explore their own desires and the budding forbidden romance that is forming.
As Carol, Blanchett is utterly superb, bringing a nuanced performance that carefully encompasses a woman of grace and dreadful insecurity. She plays her with such care, from her subtle moments of seduction to the relaxing of her body movements reserved only for Therese, that it’s impossible to look away when she’s present. Chandler (Zero Dark Thirty) proves to be the perfect foil to Blanchett, hard and aggressive against her dainty elegance, and becomes a representation of the very societal ideals that the two women are fighting. Paulson (12 Years a Slave) also turns in a wonderful performance as Carol’s ex-lover, now best friend, who rides the line masterfully between devotion and desire.
The only time the film seems to stumble is in translating Therese’s character to the screen. While the novel is written solely from her perspective, the film takes a more equal approach to the women, with scenes absent of Therese altogether. And while the character of Carol’s motivations are never clear in the novel, leaving her with a sense of mystery, here Blanchett gets to create a fully formed woman; confident yet filled with self-doubt, which works in the film’s favour. But it has the opposite effect on Therese, who severely misses the internal monologue that sheds light on much of her thoughts, instead leaving her as the doe-eyed girl standing stupefied in Carol’s shadow. Of course, Mara elevates the role with the quiet intensity of her mere presence, but in reflection it’s clear that any lesser actress would have left a substantial hole.
The film also lacks much resistance to their homosexual relationship apart from Carol’s husband using this to fight for custody. There’s a direct purpose in this type of story, however, to show another side to the narrative of homosexual experiences not often told, which leaves it’s characters with a reserved dignity often denied them, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s something missing by not addressing the prevailing homophobic views of society at the time. Even as the custody battle exposes more and more of Carol’s private life, the consequences seem almost half-hearted to the type of bigotry that one would assume to take place in even the more progressive of circles.
Even still, the film is a beautiful look at the private lives of two women, thanks mostly to Ed Lachman’s cinematography that seems to only accentuate the thick haze of desire in the air. Haynes favours lingering shots of touching flesh and forbidden stares, and it works brilliantly with Lachman’s use of muted colours that pop with a rich palette of reds and oranges whenever the two leads are together. There’s an impossible attention to detail for which Haynes should be praised, and a scene shown from two perspectives that bookends the film clearly highlights this.
Whether for the outstanding performances, the beautiful costumes, Carter Burwell’s touching score or Haynes’ careful direction, Carol is a film that should not be missed in the Christmas season or any other time of year.