By John Corrado
★★★½ (out of 4)
Forbidden love is a subject almost as old as storytelling itself, but these themes are made to feel completely evocative in Carol, a beautifully crafted story of the passionate love affair between two women in the early 1950s, a time when same-sex relationships were still largely considered to be socially unacceptable.
Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is an illustrious society woman, who is raising a young daughter with her controlling and traditional husband (Kyle Chandler), in the final throes of divorce. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a quiet department store clerk, an avid reader and amateur photographer with a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) constantly trying to take things to the next level, to no avail.
A pair of lost and returned gloves bring the two women back together, first for a formal lunch date that drips with flirtatious undertones, and then Carol starts inviting Therese over to her house. The first act moves at a deliberate pace, bringing them closer together, as they test the waters of a potential relationship. The second act reveals itself to be darker and in some ways more exciting, as Carol and Therese embark on a road trip together that threatens to change the course of both their lives.
The film is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking novel The Price of Salt, which the author published under a pseudonym in 1952. The book has since become a landmark of LGBT literature for the way it presented and documented a hidden but very real subculture of people who were forced to remain closeted, and the almost profound moment of awakening when they started to come out. Working from an adapted screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, director Todd Haynes has crafted a faithful adaptation of the source material, that keeps all of its melodrama and simmering, almost dangerous romanticism intact.
The film perfectly captures every stolen look and quickly averted eye gaze, every shy smile and longing glance of someone starting to realize their true sexual identity. When Therese first spots Carol across the store, strikingly posed in an old fur coat against the model train set that she loves, she looks away at first, before the camera pans back. Through this, Therese becomes our reference point, and the character to whom we most closely relate. By contrast, Carol is almost icy and cold, someone who treats the lighting of every cigarette or the removal of her gloves almost like a show for the world, representing a magnetic surface beauty with a lot more hidden carefully just beneath. The same could be said of the film itself.
Every surface that the film shows us is gorgeous to behold, infused with subtext, and offering some of its most beautiful moments through the things left unsaid. The cinematography by Edward Lachman hypnotically lulls us in and is completely transportive to the magical world of New York in the 1950s, with every frame flashing across the screen like a beautifully composed photograph, often recalling the work of street photographer Vivian Maier. The costumes by Sandy Powell, in her second showcase of Oscar-worthy work this year after the luminous Cinderella, are a visually arresting showcase of the fashions of the era. Carter Burwell’s music provides a haunting and quietly emotional backdrop.
Cate Blanchett is one of our finest dramatic actresses because she has a knack for playing characters who present themselves with a certain dramatic flair. Because of this, Carol fits her sensibilities perfectly, allowing her to portray another purposefully mysterious woman who is gripping in the way she draws us into her world, while also keeping us at a cautious distance. It’s a captivating performance, and one that is complimented perfectly by Rooney Mara, who gives a masterclass in subtleties, allowing the quiet revelations of someone slowly starting to blossom into themselves to flash across her expressive face.
There is a quietly simmering sense of romantic tension between them that builds towards an intensely erotic crescendo, a scene of almost starved lovemaking that is portrayed with a palpable sense of lustful passion. Like the film itself, this scene allows us to view them in a way that feels unflinchingly honest, yet thankfully never voyeuristic. There will be discussion of whether or not their relationship ever goes beneath this surface, but the surface on which Carol unfolds is so beautifully and meticulously crafted, that we fall swooningly into this world of heartbreak and passion right along with them.