by Philip Price
There is something to the quietness of “Carol.” There is nothing especially profound about what the film has to say on the surface or what it does with a rather straightforward story, but more the suggestions below the surface that crawl into the way this straightforward story is conveyed. Director Todd Haynes is not one to deliver straightforward though, in fact he is more inclined to get to the heart of what makes something or someone tick than he is to simply adhere to what is expected. The same could be said of his latest. And so, while at the outset, “Carol” seems to be little more than a story of the forbidden love between two women in the 1950s there is clearly many more, larger implications of the type of world we lived and still live in as well as how things have or have not changed as much as most of us would like to think they have. Haynes is a deliberate filmmaker and one that gives us still moments and slight observations that culminate after being strolled out one by one into something immeasurably affecting. That is to say that while I watched the events of “Carol” unfold I couldn't necessarily connect with or understand exactly what the film was going for or why it seemed to be deliberately unfolding at a pace not intended to entertain, but to incite contemplation. It is a film that wants to move you to the edge of your seat not through the tactics of great tension or breathtaking stunts, but more through the unknown that is life and the uneasiness that comes with uncertainty. There is a steady truth to the film that it never wavers from. The film never feels the need to dip itself into more dramatic waters simply for the sake of something happening, but rather it is a film that holds steady to what it values most about its characters and the silent tragedies they must forever keep to themselves. Again, it is this quietness of both the film and its characters that is consistently emphasized to the point that once the film begins to draw to a close and the greater ramifications of the life these characters choose are realized that it becomes all the more clear we, the viewer, are truly rewarded for both ours and the films practice of patience.
With “Carol,” Phyllis Nagy adapts Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel, originally titled The Price of Salt, for the screen with a story that follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950's New York. At the end of a loveless marriage, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), along with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) are readying for a divorce with their young daughter, Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim), at the heart of it. Harge is keen to his wife's unconventional ways as she's more or less admitted to something of an affair with longtime friend Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). While this kind of action has more or less put their divorce on the fast track Harge continues to work hard to regain his normalcy. On the other hand, Carol sees the separation as a relief, a freeing action that might finally offer her the ability to live the life she's always desired. This only becomes more difficult for Harge and more tempting for Carol when she meets a young woman in her 20s while out shopping for her daughter's Christmas gift. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a lowly, quiet, and somewhat odd department store clerk working in Manhattan who has a passion for photography and an expectation for something more out of life than the obligatory relationship she currently occupies with the all-around nice, but rather plain Richard Semco (Jake Lacy). It is when she glimpses Carol, an alluring woman with blonde hair and a lavish fur coat whose make-up couldn't seem to be applied more perfectly, that Therese glimpses what she might find fulfilling. There is an immediate connection between the two, despite the age difference and despite the multiple societal norms they begin to challenge as their relationship and connection continues to deepen.
And thus we have the heart of what Haynes seems to be prodding the surface for: the idea of challenging the conventional norms of the time with what is nothing more than a simple and honest story about the resilience of the heart in the face of change. What's most impressive about the film is that it could have very easily been a grandstanding picture that preached about its message (and would have preached only to the choir) in ways that might have made for a greater sense of instant gratification, but in the approach of Haynes what we have is a reserved portrayal that lingers long after the credits roll. The director is able to do this through a use of framing his main players in settings and circumstances that bring out their insecurities, their questions, and their longing looks that immediately strike that chord of there being something more between the two immediate albeit awkward friends. There are constant rumblings under the surface and Haynes plays off this dynamic by utilizing Highsmith's tender yet direct dialogue to elicit the chemistry. Of course, Blanchett and Mara have much to do with this as well, but were it not for the way in which they are outlined so delicately by long-time Haynes collaborator Edward Lachman's beautiful lighting and period aesthetic as well as being accompanied so perfectly by composer Carter Burwell's score we wouldn't have the striking sense of place and time that makes the film as lasting as it feels given its lingering effect. The film is no doubt in much debt to its two lead performances that capture the heartbreak of the situation, but Haynes and his team use every inch of the frame to enhance these performances by giving us subtle hints of who they are beyond their looks and words. The obvious example of this would be in the difference in wardrobe between Carol and Therese, the lavish and the humble, but furthermore it is the style of not just the clothes but the film as a whole-as if we're in some sort of constant dream state, a state our protagonists wish they might remain in rather than having to come out to face the world that deems them unacceptable.
Of course, it is the two leading performances that ultimately set “Carol” apart-bringing it up from simply being a collection of suggestions to a piece of profound storytelling. At first it does seem Blanchett is the obvious choice for a prestige film such as this, but it would be wrong to not cast the talented actress simply on the grounds she is the obvious choice. Of course, Blanchett clears any preconceived notions the instant Therese sees her for the first time. On the other hand, the presence of Mara is something immediately intriguing as her limited work outside of her starring role in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” makes her as much a mystery to Carol as she is to us, the audience. In these performances, much like in the costume and set design, it is how they react to one another that sets them apart while drawing them closer together. Each of these women are clearly at vastly different points in their lives and yet, each are what the other needs at that point in time to feel optimistic about the future. Carol needs Therese's inherent youthfulness and Therese needs the encouragement of someone with more perspective. They are complimentary and that's all that is necessary to be moving in terms of the obvious odds the two will face. That Blanchett and Mara push this dynamic to higher levels only makes it even more so. If one is ignorant enough to think homosexuality hasn't always existed and needs to be reassured that it has, but that such individuals had to lead sad lives and then die, Carol makes that necessary point. This is obviously not the main objective of the film though, and so to make this point without it overriding the more intimate ideas and moments Highsmith and Haynes develop minor, but substantial character arcs in the likes of Harge and Richard. In the capable hands of Chandler and Lacy the film hits some truly emotional lows that will make the converted even more heartbroken while hopefully speaking to those not yet convinced of such a loves authenticity to at least feel sympathetic. “Carol” is by no means a message movie, but is more a simple story about the complexities life carries and why living an authentic life is made to be so difficult based solely on what others expect of us.