In director Todd Haynes’ films, characters have to learn how to live in worlds that don’t suit them. In Safe, Far From Heaven and I’m Not There, his lonely protagonists often feel trapped by circumstance, unable to find any sort of real happiness because, deep down, no one around them sees things the way they do. Carol doesn’t deviate too far from that pattern, but there is an important difference: This time, there isn’t one main character but two, which is why they cling to each other so tightly.
Set in the early 1950s in New York, and based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol stars Rooney Mara as Therese, a young woman who works at a department store and is still very much living in her shell. She has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) whom she dates mostly because she feels like she should have a boyfriend—it’s what people do, right?—though she cares much more about pursuing photography than she does her man. Then, one day she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older, elegant, more refined woman, and there seems to be a spark between them. Carol finds an excuse to invite her out to lunch, and a coded rapport begins to develop between the two. There’s an attraction there, but they have to be careful because of their closed-minded times.
Like Carol, Haynes’ Far From Heaven was also set in the 1950s, but the latter was more interested in dissecting the racism and homophobia of the period, dressing the story up to look like a gorgeous Douglas Sirk movie to heighten all that was actually ugly and sad about the era. Carol was shot on 16mm and evokes the look of color photos of the time, abandoning a massive cultural critique in favor of telling a love story that lived in more conservative times. The bigotry is still there in Carol, but here it’s a given, an annoying constant with which Therese and Carol know they must contend. If anything, those arching struggles helps give their love affair an extra specialness, like a shared secret only they know.
While Therese is at the center of the film, it also gives a spotlight to Blanchett, who turns Carol into a witty, divine, somewhat tragic figure. She’s going through a divorce with a husband (Kyle Chandler) who knew that she was a lesbian—Carol saw another woman (Sarah Paulson) at least partly during the time they were married—but she’s more heartbroken about the prospect of losing custody of her young daughter due to her “deviant” lifestyle. Carol is a potentially melodramatic character—the kind who weeps ravishingly while throwing herself down on the couch in grand despair—but Blanchett doesn’t play her that way. Instead, Carol has a sad smile, which seems to be a coping device she’s developed for the unhappiness in her life. And while it’s clear Carol’s attracted to Therese, the actress drops a few subtle hints that she also looks at the younger woman as not much of a threat, enjoying the ability to play the safer role of the more worldly, experienced partner in their relationship.
If Blanchett’s part is the more extroverted, Mara’s is the trickier, more insular one. Therese is very much a work-in-progress, not exactly coming-of-age but, rather, waking up from a life of sleepwalking to figure out what she actually wants. Her emotions close to the vest, Therese is impressionable and timid, and meeting Carol teaches her that maybe the hidden feelings she’s had all along are valid. Both Blanchett and Mara avoid obvious theatrics, and Carol’s love for Therese opens the door to what could be, should Therese choose to pursue it.
Carol is a beautiful film; the cinematography by Ed Lachman is meticulously faded with time, Carter Burwell’s rich, melancholic score sets an bittersweet backdrop for the story to unfold. I confess that the one thing that keeps me from loving Carol unreservedly is that, for all its precise period detail and finely sculpted storytelling, the movie is almost too immaculately designed. Haynes has always tended toward the cooler side of the emotional spectrum, preferring a slightly intellectual detachment so as to put into stronger relief the anguish his characters feel. In a movie like Safe, which I think is perhaps the best film of the last 20 years, the result is absolutely devastating, intensifying the horror of a housewife (Julianne Moore) who inexplicably suddenly becomes allergic to everything around her. Carol burns with a muted romantic glow, but I often felt outside of it, gazing with respect and admiration for what Haynes has achieved. The movie makes you swoon, but from a distance. Then again, that could very well be Haynes’ point: Therese and Carol’s love affair is the one thing that truly belongs to them, and who cares what anyone else thinks?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.