Todd Haynes’ Carol is a glorious work of restraint and beauty, of fleeting moments caught in passing glances and brief touches. Haynes directs with a delicate and gentle hand, as if the leads in the film, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, would shatter if directed any other way. The familiar storyline, of forbidden love, is viewed afresh through Haynes’ and cinematographer Ed Lachman’s eyes; my breath was taken away as I stumbled out of the theater, and yours will be too.
Adapted from a minor work of mystery novelist Patricia Highsmith (The Price of Salt), whose more commercial thrillers have found adaptations by famed directors such as Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train) and Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Carol follows the story of department store clerk Therese Bellivet (Mara) and her relationship with Carol Aird (Blanchett), a housewife in the middle of a particularly nasty divorce. They meet in the most unromantic of places in 1950s New York, Therese’s shop; Carol gazes at a limited edition train set and Therese gazes at her. A friendship is fostered between the women; Therese’s wide-eyed innocence and embarrassed blushes are met by Carol’s smooth confidence and her knowing smiles. And yet it is Carol who is conflicted by Therese’s presence in her life; “Tell me you know what you’re doing,” says Carol’s friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) when Carol brings up the idea of going on a road trip with Therese. Carol responds, lost in thought, “I don’t. I never did.” The tension between them is overwhelming, and right when it hits its peak, Haynes knows when to defuse it.
The desire that the women share is threatened by the world around them. Carol’s husband Harge (played by the ever understated Kyle Chandler) tries to prevent Carol from leaving him by threatening to take their daughter Rindy away from her. As much as Carol wants to sacrifice her desire for her daughter, she can’t. Meanwhile, Therese is wooed by a number of men, each of whom she pushes away in favor of being with Carol. The threat to Carol and Therese doesn’t stop there; by having them surrounded by men when they are not together, Haynes positions a further threat in the masculine idea of a relationship, where only heterosexual relationships are allowed. The men in Carol, like Therese’s boyfriend Richard and Harge, are possessive and selfish; they are men of the ‘50s, incapable of understanding relationships beyond the conventional and regular. Haynes mirrors this threat with formal choices in extremely subtle ways. Examples include the very first shot, where the bold, pastel letters of the title emerge against the backdrop of a subway station gate, and the way Haynes frames Therese and Carol in their initial conversations with each other; both of them are pushed to the extremes of their respective frames, as if they are both on the edge of disaster by pursuing each other.
These elements, of the forbidden romance and the doomed inevitability of it all, reach back into Hollywood history, evoking Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Sirk’s influence on Haynes is unmistakable; Haynes paid the master of the melodrama a feature-length homage with Far From Heaven in 2002. What steers this drama clear of the melodrama of Sirk is the restraint that Haynes gives his characters. Therese and Carol are not pushed to say what they feel, nor is there a voiceover that fills in the blanks for either character (a la Brief Encounter); instead, Haynes relies on Carter Burwell’s fantastic score to stand in for words.
And yet, as emotional and beautiful as I found the film, Carol’s allure remained ephemeral for me. As much as it feels fresh, it’s held back by familiar themes. Any emotional pain that Carol and Therese undergo doesn’t seem to have stakes associated with it and seem easily overcome. I had a similar problem with Brooklyn; a lot of the conflict in Carol, especially Therese’s conflict towards the end of the film, is internal, and Haynes doesn’t give us as much as we need to empathize. Will it be remembered five years from now? I don’t think so. But as one this year’s best films, it’ll do just fine.