A Review of Todd Haynes’s Carol: Beautiful in Almost Every Way


Film: Carol
Director: Todd Haynes
Primary Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, John Magaro
US Release Date: 20 Nov 2015 (Apparently? Tulsa didn’t get it until Jan 8. Boo.)

Therese Belivet (Mara) works at Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan in the 1950s. One day, an elegant older woman named Carol Aird (Blanchett) stops by her counter at the store while Christmas shopping for her young daughter. Though no romantic words are spoken, the two become infatuated with one another almost instantly. After ordering a train set recommended by Therese, Aird exits the store, but not before leaving her gloves at the counter. Later, Therese calls Carol so that she can return the gloves. As a “thank you,” Carol offers to take Therese to lunch, and the two quickly develop a deep and meaningful connection after that.

As powerful as the love between Carol and Therese soon becomes, it is not without its challenges—most of which come from outside their relationship. The biggest of these is Carol’s estranged husband (Chandler), who is willing to rob Carol of her own daughter if she will not love him. At the same time, a pair of men (Lacy and Magaro) both vie for Therese’s attention and affection.

Directed by Todd Haynes (I’m Not There., Far from Heaven), Carol is a spellbinding tale about two women in love in a world that has no interest in respecting their right to be together. This powerful but incredibly delicate film is beautiful, captivating, and touched by deep melancholy. Though it imagines the period in which it takes place quite beautifully, this visually stunning film is also quite timeless. On top of all that, Carol also features two of the year’s best performances—both of which happen to be by women.

Above all, Carol is a film about desire, connection, and the beauty that can be found in both. It’s about two people who are drawn together quickly and powerfully. The fact that both people are women certainly influences the film and impacts the way in which the story unfolds. (Given’s Hollywood’s disdain for women as well society’s sexism and heteronormativity, the fact that a film features a lesbian relationship is also quite important.) And yet, one of the many good things about Haynes’s latest is that it never tries to be a full-fledged issue-film. While it is feminist and LGBT-friendly, Carol does not make the mistake of pretending to provide a definitive picture of what it meant to be a woman in a same-sex relationship in the 1950s. Instead, it focuses on the characters at its heart and at the hearts within them.

Carol is many things. It’s sweet and sad, delicate and powerful, tender and poignant. It also manages to inspire and to devastate simultaneously (and in the most graceful of fashions). Given the strength of the romance it depicts as well as the very real potential for tragedy that seems to haunt Carol and Therese from the first time they see each other, a lesser director (and lesser actors) could have easily taken Carol into the world of melodrama. Luckily, that does not happen. There is nothing clumsy about this film, and it is pulsing with true emotional nuance and depth. In fact, for all of Carol’s strengths, its remarkable ability to convey deeply felt and overwhelming feelings in a subtle and realistic manner may just be the most impressive.

Romantic love is not something I enjoy seeing on film. In fact, I often leave romances feeling empty and confused; but such was not the case with Carol. Instead of a sort of bewildered emotional neutrality, the film left me with a powerful sense that my heart had slowly been put into contact with a cheese grater as I gazed on something gorgeous. This is all to say that Carol portrays longing and desire and connection in an exceptionally eloquent and intelligible fashion, thereby significantly increasing its capacity to affect viewers. Haynes also heightens just about every aspect of the interactions between Carol and Therese by making it clear that they are never really safe; even if the intimate nature of their relationship is invisible to most people, disaster is always nearby.

The visual is another realm in which Carol clearly succeeds. The film’s grainy images are almost evanescent, which is fitting given its subject matter; for not only are love and desire often understood as elusive and fleeting, but the film is also structured so that most of it takes place in the hazy, dreamy world of memory.

The film’s soft and feminine color palette also works quite well, as do the lovely costumes, which—in addition to bringing the 1950s to life—play a key role in defining the characters. At the same time, Carter Burwell’s captivating and romantic score feels like something out of the past while also reinforcing the fact the story Carol tells has very little to do with its setting.
Get the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack for Carol

And the good doesn’t end there either, for the performances in Carol are just as beautiful as the rest of it. The supporting players—and in particular, Paulson and Chandler—do solid work here, but it is Blanchett and Mara who own the day.

As Carol, Blanchett is almost too good. She truly shines in the role, which requires her to be cool and commanding, mysterious and alluring. Carol is the sort of woman who never appears not to have control of her every word and action, and Blanchett conveys this sort of performed precision quite beautifully. Every second she is onscreen, all eyes are on her, and viewers will have no problem understanding why Therese falls for her as quickly or as completely as she does.

Though Blanchett gives the most magnetic of the film’s performances, Mara is also perfect for the role she is given. Generally speaking, there is something hard and cold in Mara’s style of acting, which works very well here. However, Mara also pairs any coldness in her performance with just enough warmth and delicacy to move viewers while still remaining appropriately elusive. As skillful and as well-executed as Blanchett’s performance is, Mara more than stands up her, and her character provides an important point of contrast to the more worldly Carol.

Adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay is elegant, intelligent, and perfectly understated. That said, it is also the source of only real issue with the film, which has to do with its pacing. It doesn’t damage the film much, but Carol’s narrative structure feels distinctly like that of a novel (yes, is it is based on one, but viewers shouldn’t be so aware of that fact while they are watching it). This problem is the most noticeable in the film’s drawn-out, multi-part coda, and a little too much of the film happens after its dramatic climax.

Carol grabs viewers by the heart gently and then refuses to let go with all its might. Like the women at its heart, the film is enchanting and elegant, breathtaking and beautiful. With its soft colors, dreamy visuals, masterful performances, and emotional depth, Carol rises far above the din of more ordinary films. Furthermore, this unquestionably powerful film is never over-the-top. In fact, there is nothing overdone about it all. Nearly every aspect of the film is executed to a remarkably high level—more often than not, the results are quite stunning.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! I also saw The Revenant this weekend—thereby blowing my movie-ticket budget for the month in less than 24 hours—so expect to see a post on that here shortly.

Anyone who is interested can support Words on Films by donating here. I am also looking to publish guest posts from time to time, so feel free to contact me on twitter if you are interested in writing one.

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