The store is busy with frenzied shoppers buying Christmas gifts. Above the noise, the eyes of two women find each other. It’s a strange, magical, fleeting moment. A chance encounter that will ripple through various lives. The one woman is a young, wide-eyed sales assistant dressed in a cheesy Christmas jumper; the other is beautifully dressed with immaculate makeup and hair.
When the worldly and graceful Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and the younger Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meet in a department store in 1950s New York, the air is immediately charged with that indescribable sense of attraction, and promise. Carol sashays over to the toy counter, and after buying a train set for her daughter, strategically leaves her gloves there. Therese tracks Carol down, and eventually the two meet for lunch.
Carol, with her perfect hair and red nails, is about to get a divorce. She is graceful, glamorous, glorious – everything the much younger Therese is not. And yet, there is something enchanting about the guileless Therese, with her plain clothing, barefaced innocence, and her almost fragile hopes of becoming a professional photographer. The contrast between Carol’s artificial life and Therese’s (seemingly) more simple existence, that meeting of two worlds, is part of the reason why the two fall in love. “What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space!” Carol tells Therese at their first lunch meeting, a phrase she later repeats with wonder.
The relationship isn’t Carol’s first with a woman, but for Therese it is an awakening, both sexual and emotional. Therese turns her camera lens from innocuous objects like birds and trees, to human subjects: shots of Carol, first from a distance; later, as the relationship develops, close up.
The attachment is complicated when Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) threatens to take full custody of the couple’s young daughter, Rindy, based on the so-called “morality clause” in law, which prohibits homosexual relationships, and can be used as a reason for denying a parent access to their child. Herein is the agonising and impossible choice so many have had to make: to sacrifice one love for another. “What’s moral about keeping someone’s daughter away from them?” a distraught Carol asks their respective lawyers. The other, lesser complication, is Therese’s relationship with her boyfriend, Richard (Jack Lacy), whose marriage proposal makes her feel stifled, and propels her closer to ‘freedom’, to Carol.
A decision to take an impromptu road trip together will leave an indelible mark on both Carol and Therese. Both must cast off their presented selves. Like negatives in a dark room, Therese develops from artful to passionate, the camera lens with which she has mediated her world, becomes a tool for personal connection. Carol’s confident demeanour and glamour, in turn, are revealed as part of a carefully constructed shield beneath which lies intense loneliness and self-doubt.
The story is told with care, with nuance, and strikes a perfect balance between subtext and dialogue. Director Todd Haynes again turns the lens back to the 1950s, a decade he explored in the critically-acclaimed Far From Heaven. Haynes has carefully weighted the film between the plot and the visuals. Carol (which is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel) is shot in the Super 16mm film used in the 1950s, giving it a slightly fuzzy look, and adding to the dreamlike feel of the story. Each shot is framed thoughtfully: faces peering through raindrops on a window, close-ups of three quarter profiles that reveals something, but not everything, thereby drawing the viewer in. The haunting leitmotif, and the words unspoken, say more than what dialogue can.
Both Blanchett and Mara perform their roles to perfection, and it’s easy to see why both have possible Academy Award nominations pinned to them, though critics are watching with interest which categories they are recognised for. Mara, who’s seen as a leading contender for the best supporting actress Oscar, in fact won the best actress award for playing Therese at Cannes earlier this year, beating out Blanchett. And both have been nominated for the best actress award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and for the same category at the Golden Globes. These two awards precede the Oscars, which are being held in February.
Carol is a film to fall in love with, one that cuts deeply, and continues to haunt me.
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jack Lacy
Rating: 5 out of 5