Carol follows Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a pair of women in the 1950s who meet by chance in the lead up to Christmas and have an unusual chemistry. That chemistry grows into a nebulously-defined relationship, as they learn about one another’s significant others – Carol’s soon-to-be divorced husband (Kyle Chandler) and daughter, Therese’s too-clingy boyfriend (Jake Lacy) – and aspirations. A surprise road trip together gives them time for their relationship to blossom into love, but when Carol’s husband threatens to take their daughter away by revealing her homosexuality in court, their tentative relationship is strained to the breaking point.
It is, in other words, a classic romantic melodrama. As with Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, it is easy to dismiss as light. As frivolous. As simple. It is not. This sort of restrained drama is incredibly difficult to pull off, particularly with the grace and style that Carol exhibits. That said, the film is so tender and humorless it occasionally feels as though Haynes – as Sirk was sometimes prone to do – made it as ponderous and melancholy as possible to offset any potential claim towards frivolity. This is a serious film about serious people, and in lesser hands, it could have very easily tipped towards either camp or boredom. Thankfully, Carol never takes that dive. It is mature but never dull, thoughtful without being preachy, romantic without the pandering.
The film is helped along by a stellar supporting cast, including American Crime Story star Sarah Paulson and Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler, but this movie lives or dies on the strength of its leads and how real their chemistry feels. But I think Todd Haynes makes a potentially very alienating choice, to downplay the passion of Carol and Therese’s relationship in favor of restraint. This isn’t a movie about a pair of people whose blood runs so hot they can’t help but fight society; Therese and Carol are instead both outsiders, people with sharp edges who just don’t quite fit in to society the way they’re ostensibly supposed to.
Cate Blanchett has always had a bit of distance to her work. Now, this is in no way intended as a negative – Galadriel, Queen Elizabeth, Jasmine, even Jude, her iteration of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, are all characters who are operating at something of a remove, not just from the world of the film they’re in, but from the audience. There’s always a hidden reserve to Blanchett, some deep reserve lurking beneath the surface; she is perhaps our most enigmatic major actress working today, even as stagey as she can sometimes be. This stillness lingers, builds a quiet tension, and almost inevitably leads to an explosion.
Which is what makes her ideal for Haynes’ restrained take on the story. In most romantic dramas, we get to know the characters by what they say; we often know Blanchett’s best characters just as much by what she will not or cannot say. Carol’s seduction of Therese is muted, a play of subtext in a world that cannot stand for it to be made text. We often see Carol from Therese’s point-of-view, a slightly inscrutable figure who wants… something, but is content to wait for it in silence — except for when her soon-to-be ex-husband or daughter is involved. Even then, though, Carol appears to be composed and in control, even as Blanchett makes it increasingly clear that she is not.
Rooney Mara, whose biggest role to date remains enigmatic hacker Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is our entry into Carol’s world. Therese has never been in a lesbian relationship before, seemingly wasn’t even aware that she was interested in women. Indeed, Mara plays Therese as someone who seemingly wasn’t aware that she was interested in people before she met Carol. She had relationships and friendships, but she kept them all at a bit of a distance. If Blanchett’s performance calls to mind a taut wire, Mara’s is more relaxed, a plant growing to attention in the light of the sun.
Carol is a beautiful film. The Oscar-nominated cinematography, by Edward Lachman, is gorgeous, immaculately composed and lightly voyeuristic. The Oscar-nominated score, by Carter Burwell, is delicate but passionate, though clearly over-inspired by the work of Philip Glass. The Oscar-nominated costumes, by Sandy Powell, are sharp and evocative without feeling out-of-time. The Oscar-nominated lead performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are restrained, dignified, and heartbreaking. But that beauty is always held at a bit of a remove; there is a chilly distance to the story that can make it hard to fall in love with… at first.
That’s okay. Carol isn’t a film of immediate gratification. It is one that you will find yourself thinking about in the days to come. You will hum the score in the shower, a light smile on your lips. You will find yourself remembering a shared glance and a hidden half-smile that lands with more force than any dialogue could. And you will have to fight off the urge to revisit it too soon, too often. At first blush, you will appreciate all the film’s surface pleasures – and they are many, and they are very pleasurable indeed. But the real strength of Carol lies in the way you will want to revisit it again and again.
Carol is out now on DVD, blu-ray, and streaming On Demand. Written by Phyllis Nagy and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.