It’s funny how what can’t be fully expressed in endless words and countless lines can be encapsulated in the most seemingly insignificant of gestures. In Carol a fleeting hand on the shoulder, the briefest of intimacies, carries the weight and meaning of a whole lifetime’s worth of love and loss. Even at the start of Carol, when we’re oblivious to the preceding events, we can still feel the emotional magnitude of Carol’s (Cate Blachett) farewell touch on Therese (Rooney Mara). Beyond being a very deliberate homage to David Lean’s romantic masterpiece A Brief Encounter, fittingly and fortuitously rereleased this month, the moment epitomises director Todd Haynes’ understated vision for Carol’s story of forbidden love. Sometimes majestic and beautiful, other times stoically cold, Haynes’ film is as delicate and complex as one of the many snowflakes that drifts across the screen.
Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt seems an uncharacteristically straightforward adaptation for a director who’s made his name in the daring and provocative. Yet below the surface, the tale of an illicit lesbian love fits perfectly within Hayne’s thematic canon; identity, sexuality and societal taboos are all at work. In fact Carol feels heavily reminiscent of Hayne’s Far From Heaven -a twisted reimagining of All That Heaven Allows 1950s suburban dream.
Rather than a glossy recreation of classic Hollywood cinema, Carol presents a grainy dose of realism. Shot in 16mm, Ed Lachman’s cinematography beautifully captures the era, making every scene an evocative tableau capable of gracing the New Yorker’s iconic cover. The setting becomes a character in itself, flushing between a frosty bleakness and a warm festive glow that depicts an intangible magic associated with post war America. Carol is far from a traditional Christmas film but seeing the bustling toy stores and warming fire places you can’t help but fall for the festive allure on show.
Like Far From Heaven, Carol is a film about love blossoming through the cracks of society’s concrete expectation. It all begins with a serendipitous meeting of gazes. On one side is meek shop assistant Therese (Rooney Mara), while on the other side of the store is debonair housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett). There’s an emphasis on touch and hands throughout, so when the latter leaves her gloves, a barrier between interaction, on the counter it’s a fitting catalyst to their relationship. We can’t be entirely sure whether Carol purposely leaves the gloves behind, but the seductive notion typifies her character.
Blanchett is always a domineering presence on screen and she’s no different as Carol. Snuggly encased in a creaseless red dress, without a hair out of place, Carol is woman who masks her fragility with a façade of confidence and power. Therese is of course the total opposite, both physically and emotionally. One of the first times we see this mousey little creature she’s alone in the canteen reading Frankenburg’s workplace booklet in a fruitless search for answers to life. She may resemble the period’s defining star in Audrey Hepburn, but Therese is a lost soul struggling to find her place in the world.
It’s through delicate cues like the aforementioned, rather than bold, expressive drama that Haynes chooses to do his storytelling. In fact Carol is a film typified by restraint and subtlety. Therese and Carol’s affair isn’t a lustful whirlwind, but rather a likeminded coming together. Neither’s motives are ever entirely transparent, rather their affair escalates organically out of mutual feelings of loneliness and intrigue, perhaps even opportunism. Conversation rarely gives away much either in its purposeful, always elegant tone. The love and romance burns brightest in the smallest of gestures between the two. When Therese’s hand instinctively clutches Carol’s over a coffee it’s as if time stops for the two and their friendship is going to escalate. But then reality comes crashing down and they curb their simmering feelings for the sake of society.
The problem is that these subtle gambits don’t escalate enough to flesh out a believable romance. We never feel the spark that stokes a fiery passion. Even the sex scene, the peak of their involvement, appears too deliberate and artistic to convey real emotion. One of the narrative’s biggest allures is the fact that there’s so much ambiguity in the central relationship. Carol’s history of intimate relations with other women hints at her solely using Therese for sex, or to get back at her estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Likewise, Therese could easily reduce her time with Carol to merely youthful experimentation. This sense of mystery adds a fascinating level of depth to the story, but ultimately it’s discarded in favour of fantastical, unbreakable, romance which betrays the authenticity of such ulterior motives.
Carol puts us in a funny place. The world we’re shown is filled with isolation, detachment and restrictions, yet we’re supposed to believe blindly in love – it just doesn’t quite ring true. Even A Brief Encounter, with all its gushing romance, refuses to tell us complicated affairs can persist, so how can we believe in Carol’s bleak outlook and positive prognosis?
The relationship doesn’t quite convince, but Ed Lachman’s cinematography excels in echoing the characters’ feelings of constraint and detachment. We often spy Carol and Therese through windows – acting as both barriers and a reflection of their own insecurities. Similarly, characters are often framed alone, naturally cut off from humanity by their surroundings. There’s an excellent scene where Therese and her male love interest argue through her apartment, constantly shifting through the rooms and doorways unable to share the same screen. It’s a sequence intrinsically linked to Godard and his manipulation of space in Contempt during Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli’s domestic battle. There’s even a Wellesian level of depth to shots that only accentuates the distance between characters. It’s masterful camerawork from Lachman with every scene and shot in perfect harmony with the central theme of isolation.
One of Therese’s great loves is model trains, a topic she, with a childish enthusiasm, gushes over to Carol during their first encounter. Prior to this meeting we see Therese casting her eyes over a toy town with its meticulous arrangements and clockwork locomotives. You could imagine a similar scene with Todd Haynes casting his eye over Carol’s heavily staged world. His film is full of beautiful compositions that exude America’s bygone age with all the richness of a Jack Vettriano or Edward Hopper painting. It’s forceful filmmaking, and why not when the results are so splendid, but it doesn’t leave room for human expression. Both Mara and Blanchett are excellent in their respective roles, elegantly sliding into their contrasting personas, but the carefully controlled direction holds them back from haphazardly expressing their love and falling into each other’s arms.
8/10 – A Lovely Christmas Carol