Carol is an impeccable queer period drama which beautifully captures the trials and tribulations of forbidden love between Cate Blanchett, who is a tour de force as Carol Aird, a Manhattan socialite with everything to lose, and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, a wide-eyed young shop girl who has dreams of becoming a photographer. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 cult novel, The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes directs with absorbing cinematography whilst Phyllis Nagy’s script is uncluttered and successfully blends a sensitive romance with a hint of Highsmith’s trademark mystery.
The opening sequence of Carol has an echo of Brief Encounter about it; as we first meet the couple they sit stiffly from each other in an upmarket restaurant. A friend of Therese quickly interrupts them and Carol bids an apparently casual farewell to her. This is where Nagy proves her worth as a screenwriter, as a fleeting hand-on-the-shoulder hints at something much more between the two women. As the pair go their separate ways, we follow Therese as she gazes out a taxi window and reminisces about her blossoming affair with Carol.
Their first meeting is at a busy toy department of a Manhattan store during the Christmas rush. Shop girl Therese catches a glance of Carol, a fur-draped, older, richer and soon-to-be divorced woman, who visits her desk in an attempt to find a doll for her young daughter. The two flirt as Therese instead suggests a train set and as Carol leaves, she accidentally (yet most probably on purpose) leaves her glove behind. Here, the inspiration for Carol’s character came from a moment in Highsmith’s life as she, like Therese, worked in a Manhattan department store during the Christmas rush and was faced with a sudden attraction to an elegant blonde haired customer.
Therese soon returns her glove and the two women begin to meet regularly; once at a New York smoky velvet seated diner, and then at Carol’s grand home in the suburbs where we, along Therese, soon learn more about the titular character. We witness a raw marital disagreement between Carol and her estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) who clings to any form of control over his wife. Harge soon starts to hint that her friendship with supportive best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) was once perhaps something much more.
The pace of Carol is slow but very worthwhile as the drama and tension soon rises. Carol is unable to see her young daughter because Harge is jealous of her blossoming relationship with Therese and closeness with Abby. Frustrated and angry, she sets off on a road trip with Therese by her side. A late night at a motel eventually leads to a sensitive sex scene between Blanchett and Mara. However, the couple soon find themselves growing paranoid as a private investigator begins to follow their tracks.
Having earned a best actress Oscar for her performance as the broke socialite Jasmine in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett proves that she is one of the most talented actresses in modern day cinema. Whilst Carol and Therese’s romantic unity is expressed through curious eye glances and fleeting delicate touches, Carol’s anger at Harge is told through piercing glares.
Meanwhile, Rooney Mara, building from her strong performance as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is excellent as she expresses a growing maturity throughout. Starting as a wide-eyed, naïve young woman. she slowly and quietly grows into a woman surer of her identity. Sarah Paulson proves strong support as the good humoured Abby, but it would have been nice to have seen more of Carrie Brownstein, the Portlandia and Sleater Kinney star who pops up at a party and expresses a brief interest in Therese. Her moment is rather “blink and you’ll miss it”.
Credit must be given to Sandy Powell’s impressive costume design that adds a certain atmosphere to the film, whilst Todd Haynes’s direction makes it enchanting. A peculiar mix of genres, Carol is a romance, a road trip, a melodrama, but thankfully has several reminders of the classic Highsmith’s touches. Carol is perhaps the mainstream lesbian film that you have been waiting for.
What did you think of Carol?
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– Anna Richards