Carol ★★★★

It comes as no surprise to learn Carol is a semi-autobiographical work, adapted from the late Patricia Highsmith novel ‘The Price of Salt’, later changed to ‘Carol’ a few decades on. Every frame of it feels personal, indeed near private as if we’re peering in on events behind closed doors we shouldn’t come to know. Todd Haynes, a well known pioneer of the so-called ‘New Queer Cinema’, injects the piece with the necessary elegance and repressive grace to fit the early 1950’s period setting and the focus of the intense, passionate love affair between the eponymous, middle-aged, glamorous Carol and young, impressionable, shop girl Therese. That almost makes it sound more tawdry than the picture or story deserve, as Haynes delivers a careful, measured piece of intense cinema which often beautifully depicts the growing obsession between two very different women in an age where such thoughts, let alone actions, were forbidden. It’s just a shame a certain spark feels missing.

Perhaps because of just how steadily Haynes paints his picture, how slowly he etches the deepening dynamic between Cate Blanchett’s Carol & Rooney Mara’s Therese. It takes a long time to reach a point of climax, if you’ll forgive the tasteless pun, and perhaps too long in ultimately reaching it’s dramatic and thematic points. Luckily, the aforementioned grace of his camera and his often sumptuous portrayal of the period help maintain our interest even when the narrative sags, or Phyllis Nagy’s tight and emotive script scrapes back too heavily; this is a world of traditional men, be they young or old, in fine suits with expectations of family and the place of women, and indeed of women expected to know their place. Blanchett fills Carol with the necessary sense of wealth and glamour on the outside, yet deep yearning and loneliness within; she’s wonderfully conflicted on being a good mother but knows she’s been a poor wife to Kyle Chandler’s angry, unfulfilled Harge, largely because she seeks a freer, more vivacious life.

In contrast, Mara lends Therese a quiet strength and resilience as a younger woman experiencing an emotional and physical awakening, separate from her traditional life; she has a stock boyfriend she’s expected by all to marry and sire children with, she has a normal job in a normal store serving people on the upper social strata, but what she seeks is the same exotic glamour that Carol has. One wonders infact if Therese truly desires Carol, or the idea of Carol, and Haynes does play with that concept without ever definably answering the question. He & Nagy often flip the controlling poles between the two women, changing who has that emotional and internal power over the other, and it allows more a deeper and more involving piece of work. Mara isn’t the actress Blanchett is but they contrast each other effectively, and once all the chickens come home to roost, crucially nobody (not even Harge) are left entirely one-dimensional or unsympathetic. All are real, rounded people stifled by expectations & traditions.

We now live in an age where sexual freedoms and homosexuality in particular, while still being unfortunately misunderstood or feared by many, are no longer the taboo or even crime they would have been when Carol was set. Todd Haynes thankfully never gives into temptation to use this period piece as a way to beat a drum or provide modern commentary, he rather allows a very real and difficult human relationship between two women unfold. Were it a modern day story, it would be much more traditional. Set when it is, you feel the retrospective power and, to an extent, how far we have come in our expectations and understanding. If only Carol had managed to trim a little running time, or balance a stronger sense of narrative behind its characterisation, and indeed emoted a touch more than the script allows, then it may have ended up a classic, rather than simply a fine piece of drama unlocking a very human truth.

A. J. liked these reviews