Carol seems to unfold in slow motion at times, bathed in the Christmas lights of 1950s New York City. Like its lead characters, the movie is stunningly beautiful yet calculating, allowing genuine emotion to burst forth occasionally from its immaculately conceived veneer. Director Todd Haynes doesn’t stray far from his recurring themes, as Carol deals with clandestine relationships and the rich inner lives of its subjects.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) plays Therese Belivet, a bookish shopgirl whose reticence to travel to Europe with her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) hides a deeper dysphoria that she can’t define. It’s only when the poised and self-assured Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) comes into a Manhattan department store that Therese begins to wake up from an emotional slumber.
That first meeting as Carol and Therese lock eyes across a crowded room is supremely cinematic, reminiscent of a thousand scenes that have played out in similar fashion before but new and fresh thanks to some fine framing and acting. It’s a bellwether for the movie too, which plays with convention but skirts cliches by being so well-acted.
As Carol (deliberately?) leaves her gloves behind a spark is ignited and a door left open to a new beginning. Therese, an aspiring photographer, is looking for a brave new world and an escape from the mundanity that threatens to take over her life (mostly in the form of square-jawed Richard). While Carol is already separated from her wealthy husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), a man who has designs on a reunion and can’t wrap his head around the fact that his estranged wife is gay.
Carol and Therese’s tentative romance is alternately coy and forthright, beginning with simple lunch dates before expanding to an impulsive cross-country road trip to Chicago. Looks and simple gestures are freighted with meaning, as it’s clear to everyone but Therese what’s occurring. The language to describe a lesbian relationship was at the time woefully inadequate, but Richard asks Therese outright if she’s gay while Harge already knows of a past dalliance that Carol’s had with close friend Abby (Sarah Paulson).
There’s a great gulf between what these women want and what they’re allowed to have, and that comes into stark relief when Harge threatens to disallow Carol from seeing their young daughter Rindy. That’s the plot machinations of the movie kicking into high gear but Carol could get by on its fine production design alone. There’s a realism here in the lighting, language and performances that few period pieces approach, and the closet recent analog would likely be TV’s Mad Men.
Blanchett continues a years-long winning streak as Carol, a woman who seems like a kinder version of the wealthy Jasmine of Blue Jasmine. Carol’s mannerisms and speech are practiced and ingrained, with Blanchett giving a performance within a performance of a character who can rarely let her true self show. It’s only with Therese (and friend Abby) that she can let her guard down, a dispiriting reminder of prejudices past.
Rooney Mara is forced to be even more internal as Therese, a decades-younger woman who’s only beginning to come to terms with who she really is. Mara makes the role sing, showing an emotive and amazing cry-face second only to Claire Danes in Homeland. Both women are on a journey of self discovery but Therese has the more pronounced of the two, leading to a whopper of a final shot that ends the movie at the exact right moment.
The movie leading up to that moment can feel plodding at times, especially in some of the road trip sequences that seem to stretch on. But Haynes remains in control the whole time, carefully laying plot points and emotional beats that mostly pay off in the end. There’s also a stellar score by Carter Burwell (who did most of the Coen Brothers’ films). The recurring theme is haunting and frequently used, leading me to expect some weird, Coen-esque violent outburst that never really arrives.
Haynes plays with the sequencing of events too, starting the movie on the night that it eventually ends at before jumping back some months to start from the beginning. The elliptical timeline doesn’t feel gimmicky and adds to the weight of that final moment, allowing the emotional fallout of all the characters’ actions and choices to build and build.
It’s the sign of a great movie that you continue to revisit it in your mind days or even weeks on, which is exactly what I’ve been doing with Carol. Haynes has created a movie that’s populated with deeply felt characters but holds the audience at a distance occasionally, as Carol succeeds thanks to the fine craftsmanship, impeccable design and finely wrought acting that converge to create a well-realized world that’s heartbreaking and hopeful – a world not unlike our own.
Directed by Todd Haynes
Runtime: 118 minutes