Audacious in concept, awash in nuance, and astonishing in execution, Carol is an indelible portrait of a society suppressed; a calm, luscious creation of breathtaking art and velvety beauty; and an ardent, extraordinarily important drama of sleek precision and pure ardour. Not only one of the best films of the year, it’s a love story for the ages.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, delectable) is a 1952 New York shopgirl and aspiring photographer who has a chance encounter with the sophisticated and impeccably attired Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Carol, a confident socialite, is looking for a birthday present for her daughter; Therese, shy, with a slanted Santa hat adorning her head, recommends a train set. Carol then disappears, but not before leaving behind her leather gloves and turning as she exits and mouthing “I like the hat.” The comment leads to a private investigator, a custody battle with Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, immaculate), and a whirlwind tour through the lives of the two women at its core.
The Oscar-winning Blanchett has been charming filmgoers for two decades, whether as an elf queen in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring or as the frantic, frenzied Jeanette Francis in Blue Jasmine. As Carol, Blanchett must be a human magnet for Therese while remaining vulnerable, exposed despite enjoying the privilege and status that Therese lacks.
Mara, who has gone from stealing The Social Network out of the hands of Mark Zuckerberg to stealing Her out of the hands of Joaquin Phoenix and finally landed her first Oscar nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, may just add a statue this time for her work in Carol (she already won Best Actress in Cannes). Mara is incomparably swoon-worthy, with her frosty features and steely resolve giving way to captivating tenderness wrapped in an inner strength.
Director Todd Haynes (Safe, I’m Not There) is no strange choice for the Patricia Highsmith source material The Price of Salt: his gorgeous Douglas Sirk-esque melodrama Far from Heaven was more than one of the best films of 2002; it was an encapsulation of an era in transition. Haynes returns to the 1950s for Carol, and it is a perfect companion piece to Haynes’ prior masterstroke, from the timely themes to the dazzling costumes to the towering central performances. Borrowing the conceit from the 1945 classic Brief Encounter, Haynes uses an ingenious framing device to play with perspective and to palpably illustrate how it shifts over the course of the story.
Haynes has a preternatural understanding of the kind of all-conquering, soul-devouring love that knocks you off your feet and leaves you dazed and dizzy before you even realize what’s happened. The passion evoked in Carol is not as visible nor as visceral as that on display in Ang Lee’s groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain or the Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color. Yet the streams of feeling that pulse under the surface are no less powerful, and the soft glimpses of attraction exchanged are as explosive and transformative – to the film’s leads and to the audience – as dropping a nuclear bomb on top of a tidal wave in the middle of a hurricane.
Haynes has assembled a literal dream team in bringing his vision to the screen: Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay is so delicately wrought, so flawlessly calibrated that it’s both an inscrutable wonder and an inevitability that she’s not receiving much recognition from the year-end critics’ groups. Carter Burwell’s score equals or tops his impressive efforts in Anomalisa, another 2015 highlight.
Most significantly, Haynes reunites with director of photography Ed Lachman (The Virgin Suicides), with whom he previously collaborated on Far from Heaven. In Carol, Haynes and Lachman embrace a more subdued palate and tone, but it’s practically bursting with the clear, radiant imagery found only in the work of the greatest cinematographers. Lachman shoots with crystal reflection, using angled mirrors and car windows, giving visual expression to a journey started with a simple glance.
Beyond a celebration of meticulous craft, Carol is a moving, thrillingly unconventional story of two people caught in the torrents of passion and unable to resist, but – in heartbreaking fashion – also unable to truly consummate their affection. It deserves mention alongside The Kids Are All Right and the greatest contemporary romances, including In the Mood for Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Blue Valentine.
By tracing the geometry of desire, by recreating (not mimicking) that impenetrable feeling of being dashed against the rocks and taken to the heavens by the smile or the sway of another person, Haynes has nearly achieved the impossible. At the very least, he has given us a stunning and stirring spellbinder, a cinematic gift of the highest order.