Sean’s review published on Letterboxd:
Alone in a city. You are amongst the rushes of people streaming through the paved streets, under watchful stares of dwarfing buildings, but you’re not with anyone. Christmas lights adorn every walkway, when switched off colour muted they lie in wait like the seeds of a party when switched on their vivid flashing is the urge to buy, to cheer, to be festive, to love, to cherish, to buy, to be happy. People wear seasonal hats and jumpers, holding hands walking side by side, some with loved ones others alone but you can’t assume they desire the same as you, you can’t know anything about them just by looking although faces help. Sometimes people-watching is incredibly fulfilling, it’s a cascade of life, and sometimes it’s a reminder of your lack of one. You have good friends, and they are irreplaceable, but company isn’t enough to always feel whole. Maybe in the city you meet and eye or two that seems to look back and observe and register you, but there’s no connection. Maybe you thought in the city you would be swallowed into some romantic narrative and leave it feeling brighter. Places can feel flat when you’re alone, you look at it but you’re not in it. They can be skeletons, you see their amazing structure but you’re feeling any life. So you wander into the cinema, and sink into the seat, head enjoying the mysterious dim of the cinema, and you peer up in hope, the rest of the world recedes in your mind like the room under the diming of the cinema’s lights.
Maybe that’s an incredibly longwinded way of saying that I felt like I watched this under ideal circumstances. A bout of cold loneliness, stuck between feeling so urgently to connect with somebody and as much a desire to retreat – and Carol offers both of those things, primarily in the form of Therese Belivet, our solitude-inclined teenager a little lost on the cusp of adulthood. She has friends, and a fiancé who if not doggedly pursues a more active form of romance with her at least brings up the question of their love in conversation a lot…but she’s a little distant, not indifferent but whenever she’s with people you know there’s some dissatisfaction gnawing at her, threatening to displace her.
Rooney Mara is how old…???.....yet playing nineteen isn’t implausible at all, she has that kind of clenched nervous youthful energy, like she’s a little on edge, but there’s dreaming and longing in her face to, it seems so young, but thoughtful…and that’s all there in the shot everybody is talking and writing about, the one of her in the car, her face blurry and half-formed behind the window that she gazes out of that’s dappled with water and the lights of the passing streets, and she almost looks like she’s going to be washed away – and the present moment is kind of washed away, into the past that she’s recollecting in that moment, all of that became centred with the aggressive and addictive gravitational pull of love, around a woman named Carol…
the film, being a film, has a more filmic structure than the book, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, (please read it, I think the book and film are pretty much equal in their power, what the book does with words the film matches visually and vice versa) whose opening chapter opens quietly amongst the hustle and bustle of New York and builds to a scene in which Therese is invited to an old widow’s apartment (not in the film) a place which only angers her insecurities about her place in the world, her fate in it, and suffers a sort of existential panic attack which is perhaps what makes her so receptive to Carol when she first sees her.
The film begins instead with them dining together and then we build to that as culminating moment. The book has a much more pronounced alienation, because it’s Highsmith – and her characters are people outside the world, the bulk of conforming society anyway, looking in – and you might be a little surprised not having seen the film to learn it’s a Highsmith adaptation. But Highsmiths morally confused worlds is a perfect place for a LGBTQ drama, especially one in the 50s, because its characters are entering into a territory that’s so alien, its rules so unformed – and with that comes suspense. Highsmith’s trademark is suspense, and this film is suspenseful, and I’m sorry if you didn’t feel that – from the very beginning flares of attraction to the height of their complete emotional and physical entanglement I wanted it to survive, I wanted their love to be intact.
There’s worry and doubt the threat of the world that permeates the film – firstly this American landscape from the New York City to quiet motel-towns to stretches of undisturbed country are so gorgeous and like Rooney Mara as Therese, totally plausible, there being a beautiful depth and envelopment to the world, and a smaller grainier intimacy to it courtesy of the 16mm, that, specifically with Mara and Blantchett, isolates them in the large bewildering 50s landscape and puts them in their own gorgeous portraits, in their own privates worlds.
Secondly, the two leads. Blanchett just makes you fall in love with her too – and you know why Therese does, she projects a sharp discerning authority, like she could cut you down in one fell swoop, but in little glimpses underneath her stony commanding power there such a goddamn warmth, the little fire of love and kindness that she’s stoking all the time, with such commitment. She seems have the assurance of a person who knows all they need to know, but she’s learning all the time, and when Therese and her share that glance in the department store, well, there’s a whole world there that they’re being urged into but they don’t quite consciously know it.
Thirdly there’s the men, who are played perfectly too – they’re not enemies, sensationalised antagonists who want to stop the women at all costs, they’re just dumbfounded, and the only way they know how to process what’s happening is assert their masculinity a little more. Kyle Chandler who plays Carol’s gradually-ex-husband Harge is such a great embodiment of this. I’ve never liked the actor, he’s always some generic square-jawed authority figure, but here he gets to imbue that with life – he’s a poster man of the era who is everything society said he should be, and he wants to why he’s not enough for his wife, but what he doesn’t understand, and you can see it in his eyes at all times trying to pathetically fathom this, is that it’s not a matter of him being not enough, he’s just wrong.
When a film can capture two people exchanging a look so perfectly, just the silent first meeting of eyes, encapsulate something so delicate and as sensitive as that infatuation, and make it palpable, it must be goddamn great. People think its cold, but if that moment didn’t warm you like it warmed the two women, you have the rest of the film – which is ok. Therese is kind of the audience surrogate that way and is the barometer for the temperature of the film, the icy prison that held her heart thaws gradually throughout the film until she welcomes so much more of the world in – that’s what would ideally happen to each and every audience member. People compare this to Mad Men, and that’s right, when you’re first in that show there’s inscrutability to it, you feel locked out of the world, but fascinated enough by its radiating mystery. And then there’s a breaking point where you feel yourself emotionally let in.
I was on board from the beginning, but the moment the film overwhelmed me was a small moment, a little gesture that in the context of this film is so huge because it makes you realise just how cautious and reserved the world has to be, and how a single gesture can make all that repression melt away – Carol having invited Therese into her home and slowly slided into a gradual intimacy just playfully lets out her hair, and just that small bit of unkemptness is the most raucous, giddy, exciting thing. It’s a this is real moment.
The two other Todd Haynes films I’ve seen, The Karen Carpenter Story and Safe, are also about women rebelling against the confines of their worlds, and it comparison its surprising how much more incredibly hopeful Carol is, because its women kind of….get to win.