Stolen glances across a room, a yearning face pressed against a frosted window pane, a toy train circling its inevitable continuous destination. These recurring shots, loaded with unspoken meaning, define the story of two women on an unstoppable journey towards each other, drawn by the one thing that we are powerless to resist in Todd Haynes’ impeccable love story Carol.
The film begins by firmly establishing the decade that we are in, the 1950s, as the camera glides along the streets of Manhattan, as we follow a gentleman to his destination of the Ritz Charlton where we happen upon Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) with a companion, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). The two women exchange a seemingly casual farewell, however the placing of a hand on the shoulder and a pained expression hint at a telling history between the two, which is revealed in a series of events that capture the sparks of meeting someone and the eventual surrender of falling on love.
The first encounter between Mara’s shop girl and budding photographer Therese and Blanchett’s immaculate yet vulnerable 50s socialite happens in the department store where Therese works. Carol is looking for a doll for her daughter yet is persuaded by Therese to buy a train set instead, one that requires the address of the buyer and with a (deliberate?) move by Carol of forgetting her gloves on the counter, a subtle invitation has been offered to Therese to pursue something beyond a simple purchase. Therese is drawn to Carol’s older sophisticated woman; she offers something akin to her own soul, unable to find satisfaction with her own peers and an indifference to her nice guy boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy). Carol meanwhile is not merely attracted to Therese as a distraction for a bored 50s housewife, every look that is thrown her way is reciprocated to Therese who is a beacon of purity and truth for a woman who has to deny her innate existence because of social dictation. On their first lunch date Carol declares to Therese ‘“What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space!”
The conventions of the time, the social taboo and distain for a forbidden love force the two women to conduct their blossoming affair away from prying eyes and Carol becomes a semi road trip movie, a beautiful cross country journey, the two edge closer and closer towards each other by the more distance they travel. But Carol is pulled back from this haven of freedom by her soon to be ex husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), embroiled in an increasingly bitter divorce and custody battle for their child Rindy, she must choose between her daughter and the person that she really wants to be, the stifling nature of her position set to consume her.
With Carol, Todd Haynes has created a love story for the ages and produced the most cinematically beautiful film of the year. Every element and detail is sculpted to perfection from the sumptuous period design, to Carter Burwell’s score that aches with suppressed desire to the pitch perfect pacing that leaves the viewer yearning for the two leads to be able to freely release their feelings. Haynes, who has previously shown his confidence in classic melodrama with the Douglas Sirk inspired Far from Heaven and his TV adaptation of the definitive ‘woman’s picture’ Mildred Pierce, excels again in this arena. His film never descends into pastiche and his meticulous direction means no shot is anything less than stunning and every action is loaded with emotion, filling the scene with meaning before the dialogue arrives.
And then of course there are the performances of two actresses at the peak of their game. It is easy to expect Blanchett to be excellent, to take it for granted that she will deliver, however she continues to raise the bar that she has already set herself so high. Her Carol is a woman who is polished to perfection but wears her riches like armour, to shield her brittle existence, an emotional prisoner of the time she lives in. Blanchett never allows this character to be caught however in overwrought acted melodrama, she finds depth and subtle emotion in her portrayal to the point that when we return to the scene at the beginning of the film, just before she bids farewell to Therese, her final plea to her lover is delivered with the most heartbreaking profoundness. Mara also excels in a role that draws to her strengths as an actress, the frostiness that often envelopes her face to steel her emotions works perfectly as Therese, a woman who is hungry for deeper connections yet seems to retreat from society, confused by any new feelings that hit her unexpectedly. She tries to remain poised yet you sense the fire that burns within her so that when she breaks her pursed lips into a smile, it is charming but equally when she breaks down it is truly devastating. The final scene is a wordless master-class between the two actresses that produces a genuinely heart stopping cinematic moment.
Carol is, at its core, a simple love story but one that will make you swoon from each of its frames and one that makes you realise and remember that the power of love transcends the barriers that fight to control it. In one scene Carol remarks and repeats to Therese “angel… flung out of space”. These are two women living in a different space, at a different time in their lives yet the all consuming tide of love brings them together despite of this. Though it does not offer them a realised conclusion, it merely offers a moment in time, one that is the essence of love and in Haynes’ hands, the essence of cinema.