Director: Todd Haynes
Runtime: 118 minutes
As restrained and repressed as its time period and characters, Todd Haynes' Carol still has a beating heart at its center. You might just have to work a little harder than necessary to get to it. At times emotionally reserved to a fault, this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" thaws out just in time to deliver an understated wallop of an ending that catapults it from the ranks of the 'good,' and into the realm of the almost-great.
Not counting his HBO miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce, Mr. Haynes hasn't released a narrative feature since his Bob Dylan fantasia I'm Not There, so to see him reemerge with such a beautifully controlled work might take a little getting used to. The director has returned to the relative time period of his excellent Far From Heaven, albeit from a drastically different angle. Far From Heaven sought to emulate the rich melodramas of Douglas Sirk, while Carol - despite its scenes of wealthy people in pretty clothes - brings to mind Inside Llewyn Davis. This is not the picture perfect vision of post-war America, but rather a grittier vision that further deconstructs the societal norms of the day.
This is all evident in the Christmas-y color scheme, using rich reds and greens that are still made to look a little worn and desaturated. When young shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) shows up for work at a pricey department store, even the showroom looks a little dingy (not to mention the staff cafeteria). It's not exactly gloomy, but rather that the artifice of everything in the store (as well as the artifice of the 1950s concept of a homogenized society) is made clear as day to Therese and the viewer. Sharing in that vision, despite belonging to the upper class, is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who saunters into the store one December morning to buy a gift for her daughter. Out of a crowd of faces of parents and children, Therese and Carol's gazes meet, and very slowly, the dance begins.
Ostensibly a story of forbidden love, Phyllis Nagy's script refuses to fall into the trap of radically altering the source material for the sake of a more conventional tale. This is a story about isolated souls finding a connection against the odds and in violation of every social more. Carol never becomes a psychological thriller, but Haynes is gifted at emphasizing small gestures in order to convey the utter seriousness of Therese and Carol's burgeoning relationship, as well as the risks of exposure. Quick glances and touches on the shoulder are stand ins for traditional romantic gestures, even when the two women are in private. It's a romantic game of cat and mouse, only with both players working together to avoid the crushing weight of "traditional values."
And, as much as my admiration for the film has grown since I saw it, it's all to easy to understand why many will find Carol a little too distant for its own good. Haynes' pacing never drags, but it does move at a steady, stately rate, without too much variation for the first half or so. Carol is all about the wind up to a purposefully muted release, and for some it will be too little and too late. But even as I can see where detractors are coming from, I continue to find little details that stand out. Carol's story is not complicated, but it is complex, and the film practically demands a second viewing just to absorb every little move involved in Therese and Carol's covert courtship.
Keeping the whole enterprise going, even when Haynes himself seems a bit unsure about how to best move it all along, are the two beautiful performances from the leads. Mara has a much more passive role, but her quietness is an asset that the film needs. She is our window into the more obvious drama of Carol's domestic woes, and she reacts accordingly.
Meanwhile Blanchett, the actor to Mara's reactor, is nothing short of sublime in the titular role. It's a role that the actress could have done on autopilot, but instead, Blanchett invests every look and touch and vocal flutter with a lifetime of experience. Therese is still finding and shaping herself, while Carol has known for years what she truly wants and what it will cost to have it. Without ever reaching for a big moment, Blanchett captures the character's turmoil with heartbreaking restraint and intelligence. Arriving just two years after her towering work in Blue Jasmine, Carol once again asserts the otherworldly Australian as one of the leading performers of her generation.
And even though I may have some quibbles with some of Haynes' lulls in the narrative, his overall work here is excellent. Working with a talented group of collaborators, he's created a beautiful, yet realistic-looking film every bit as refined and textured as one of Carol's pricey fur coats. Costumes, production design, and photography are all superb, without getting in the way of the film's slowly blooming emotional center. Carol favors the exploration of a human bond over the sexier details, so even when the one proper sex scene arrives, it feels not only justified, but intimate and tender.
Yet even the consummation of Therese and Carol's affair pales in comparison to the magic trick that Haynes pulls off in the closing chapters. Carol goes in a few surprising directions, with certain events arriving in ways that don't initially appear satisfying. But the careful windup finally comes together when Haynes and Nagy take both leads through their respective low points, yet allow room for hope. There is sadness and regret in Carol, but by the end, it hardly comes off as a cinematic depressive. All of those furtive, smoldering glances and gentle touches on the hand lead to one final, wordless exchange that is nothing short of heart-stopping in its beauty, and a perfect ending to the year's most delicate, albeit chilly, romance.