Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Phyllis Nagy based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Jake Lacy (Richard Semco), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), John Magaro (Dannie McElroy), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy Tucker), Kevin Crowley (Fred Haymes), Nik Pajic (Phil McElroy), Carrie Brownstein (Genevieve Cantrell), Trent Rowland (Jack Taft).
You will not see a better looking film this year than Todd Haynes Carol. Like pretty much all of Haynes work, this is a period piece – in this case 1952 New York, which Haynes and company have brilliantly, meticulously re-created. The cinematography by Ed Lachman is wondrous – harkening back to the films of the era – a little of the Douglas Sirk melodramas (which Haynes re-created, more faithfully in Far From Heaven), crossed with film noir (again, which Haynes did with the TV miniseries Mildred Pierce). But Carol is even better than both of those films – which were great – as it delves even deeper into the love affair at its center – one where much is left unsaid, and yet couldn’t be clearer. The sexual attraction and chemistry is there between modest shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and rich housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchatt) from their first charged interaction – about baby dolls and toy trains of all things, where the pair oh-so quietly flirt. The film is also the most erotic of the year – although it takes a long time to get to anything approaching explicit, at which point the relief of tension is great.
The movie, based on a novel by master-of-suspense Patricia Highsmith (writing under an assumed name), is about Therese, who is an aspiring photographer, with a boyfriend, and a circle of mainly male friends. She keeps everyone at a distance however, as if she herself is not quite sure what she feels towards any of them. It’s Christmastime, and she’s working in a toy department when she first meets Carol – a rich housewife, dressed to the nines, who wants a doll for her four-year daughter, but ends up with a train instead. This first interaction leads to others – and we gradually get to know the two women. Carol’s marriage to harge (Kyle Chandler) is approaching divorce – an affair of Carol’s with a female friend (Sarah Paulson) being a factor. Both Carol and Harge love their daughter Rindy – and Harge wants Carol back, but he may not be above destroying her if he cannot have her. It’s after this threat has been made to Carol, that she and Therese head out on a cross country road trip – one that throbs with danger and desire, that could destroy them.
There is, to be fair, not much plot to Carol – it isn’t a thriller, like most of Highsmith’s novels (and, if I’ being honest it is perhaps my least favorite of her work as a novelist that I have read). Yet, as written by Phyllis Nagy and directed by Haynes, Carol becomes something much greater on the screen than it was on the page. This is a movie about erotic attraction – about that charge that is sent through people when they see each other. But it’s also about love – as cheesy as that sounds. Highsmith’s novel has been well loved for years, because it’s one of the only examples – certainly the only one of its era – to depict a homosexual relationship and not have it end in tragedy. The ending, in both the book and the film, is ambiguous – but also glorious. It’s a moment that brought me to tears in the theater, with its seemingly effortless emotion notes.
The performances in the movie by Blanchatt and Mara are both brilliant. Blanchatt has found another role that uses her theatricality well – all the world is a stage for Carol, who has to always dress the part, and play the picture of wifely and motherly perfection, even if that is about the last thing she feels on the inside. She is wonderful in the scenes in public with Mara – where so much is said with body language that remains invisible to everyone around them in the movie, but not to those of us watching in the audience. Mara is even better as Therese – she is quiet, perhaps a little timid, unsure of herself and her feelings. Yet as the movie progresses, it becomes clear she isn’t quite as innocent as she first appears – she chases Carol as much as she is chased – is also part of the aggressor when their relationship is taken to the next level.
The greatness of Carol is difficult to explain – it’s all in small gestures, and the brilliant cinematography and feel of the film. It’s a sexually charged love story – and one of the best of its kind that I have ever seen. A brilliant, devastating movie – perhaps the best film yet from Haynes, who is almost always great. In short, a masterwork.