Movie Review: Carol
A Love Letter Flung Out of Space
Carol, writes Patricia Highsmith, “would be in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.” Carol, the latest film by Todd Haynes is starting to cause a rousing stir in cinemas around the world. Breath after breath, she will find home in many cities, countries and eventually our homes. She’s a ripple whose reach grows stronger with each pulse. An embrace between lovers, reunited — ever tighter. A spark set to a fire cracker. A slow burn. She invites us — cineastes, casual movie goers, humans from all walks of life — to see her, to feel her, to be absorbed, enveloped and be reminded of how movies used to move us, shake us in our cores and make our hearts flutter. In a World where we find ourselves more connected to one another than ever before, and yet even further removed from each other, we can still experience and share the gift of Carol.
Today we are flooded with content, especially an endless stream of movies. We consume films differently than we used to. A trip to the cinema is a rare occurrence. However, we still remember films from another time. We may or may not have seen them, but we would at least know what they are. At least someone would have told us at one point or another that it is a masterpiece. It becomes one when the talent, the means and the circumstances involved in the production all fall into place. There are no shortcomings. The acting, the writing, the directing, the production values, music…everything works in concert to achieve a perfect balance. It’s a rarity to see this achieved today. We can easily pick up on the shortcomings of most movies. The storytelling can be lazy. An over-reliance on CGI attempts to cover plot holes. The acting is wooden…But Carol makes me want to revisit her as soon as the credits have rolled, and I am about to see her for the fifth time.
It was 1952 when Highsmith, the remarkable mastermind behind the novel Strangers on a Train (and later Two Faces of January, The Talented Mr Ripley and many others) finally found a publisher for The Price of Salt — her latest work. As The Price of Salt did not fit the crime genre, Highsmith had to resort to publishing it under a nom de plume — Claire Morgan. The plot was inspired by a real-life encounter with a beautiful older woman, at a department store, where she worked during the Christmas holidays. Having fallen ill after the incident, she wrote the novel rather quickly, as if in a fever dream. The narrator and heroine is Therese, a young woman who meets the older Carol, under nearly-identical circumstances. The reader is drawn into Therese’s mind as she falls in love with Carol. A series of events follow. The two women meet up for lunch, connect and embark upon a road trip together. It is as much a story about Therese finding her way in life. There are differences — in age, class, and experience —but there is also their inability to describe something that has no reference point; at a time when love between two women is considered criminal.
Phyllis Nagy — playwright, screenwriter and close friend of Highsmith’s, was gifted with a copy of the book by the author herself, finally re-published under her own name and re-titled Carol, 5 years before her death. Nagy did not read the novel until after Highsmith’s death, but when she did, it was a revelation; and so Nagy took up the challenge of adapting it into a film. After over a decade of development hell, the puzzle pieces finally fell into place and the film began shooting in Cincinnati in the Spring of 2014.
Carol makes me want to revisit her as soon as the credits have rolled, and I am about to see her for the fifth time.
Todd Haynes is one of the most intriguing directors working today. His output includes the unique biopics Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and I’m Not There as well as compelling stories about women — unsung heroines dealing with social mores and hardship in films like Safe, Far from Heaven (both starring Julianne Moore) and HBO’s Mildred Pierce (starring Kate Winslet). After a long career break, Haynes’ schedule opened up and he fell hard for Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay and Highsmith’s novel. The screenplay does not compromise. It does not titillate. Instead, true to Highsmith’s novel, Nagy captures the complex nature of falling in love, deeply; and a mind which, akin to a criminal’s, is completely obsessed with the other person. While lifting some dialogue off Highsmith’s writing, the script is refreshingly spare. Words are carefully weighed. They linger in the air, between the two women amidst the smoke from their cigarettes. A Love that dare not speak Its name. Silences…sighs…glances…pauses yield so much more meaning than any words. And when words are finally spoken, they hit you in your core…
When words are finally spoken, they hit you in your core.
When Haynes joined the project, Cate Blanchett was already attached to star as the eponymous Carol . Blanchett is a true chameleon, infinitely watchable in film as well as on stage. She is the epitome of a classic movie star, on par with the greats like Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall or Ingrid Bergman. In Carol, she unearths yet another layer to her talent and range. Acutely aware of the camera’s gaze, Blanchett embodies an image of a woman of impeccable beauty, style and poise. She easily sweeps Therese (Rooney Mara) off her feet, when she wanders into a store to purchase a gift for her daughter. But this is just a facade. Underneath is a woman who is slowly unraveling as she is about to exit a marriage which has run its course. But Carol has a daughter — Rindy — whose future will be deeply affected. Similarly, her sublime mink coat is just a front. On the film set, it was falling apart and had to be re-stitched together, take after take, by the costume designer Sandy Powell. The production made the most out of every cent of the film’s budget. As Nagy’s script takes us out of the confines of Therese’s head space, and does not even consider the use of pretentious voice-over altogether, Blanchett beautifully evokes the emerging cracks in Carol’s veneer.
We initially find Therese leading a perfectly ordinary life: working at a department store, with a handsome boyfriend by her side, and a hobby — street photography — a subtle change from in the novel, where she pursued stage design. But she is unfulfilled. Her boyfriend is pressuring her into taking a romantic trip and clearly wants to marry her. Unsure of what to make of her private life, or career, Therese is ambushed by intense feelings she develops towards Carol. As the two women are drawn to each other, everything else in Therese’s life falls by the wayside. Rooney Mara, who previously mesmerized audiences in David Fincher’s take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is exquisite in her best role to date. She subtly internalizes Therese’s thoughts and emotions, speaking volumes by hardly saying anything at all. Both Carol and Therese seek to articulate the feelings that transpire between them. In 1952 there is no example to look up to, but neither woman feels fear or guilt and it is not the heroines but others who find their sexuality to be an issue.
It is not just Blanchett and Mara who are luminous, sumptuously playing off each other like partners engaged in committing the perfect crime. The supporting players are excellent. Kyle Chandler welcomes sympathy as Carol’s husband Harge who, despite an air of selfishness and concern for his own reputation, tries his utmost to keep his family unit together. Sarah Paulson is unforgettable as Abby, Carol’s childhood friend and ex, who chooses to remain in Carol’s orbit, to be there as her best friend, at all times, be they joyful or devastating. The rest of the cast, appearing in minor roles or as extras, many from Cincinnati, shed artifice and appear as real people, blending perfectly into the world of the film. Judy Becker’s production design supplies post-war austerity, livid colors and authentic detail while Sandy Powell’s costumes feel unique, stunning but also timely and lived-in.
Shot on Super 16mm and lensed by Ed Lachman, Carol pays homage to great photography of the 50s. Shots through windows, condensation, reflection, light- and shadow-play evoke the work of Saul Leiter. Photographers like Ruth Orkin, Vivian Maier and Helen Levitt, among others, were also major influences. Lachman and Haynes also referenced Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, L’Eclisse and La Notte for their use of abstract and spatial relationships to enter their characters’ minds. George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun and David Lean’s A Brief Encounter informed the point of view of the most vulnerable lover. Even Carol’s editor Affonso Gonçalves shows restraint, lingering on silences, stoking our desire to witness a declaration of love between the heroines, just as Carter Burwell’s sublime score swirls around them. It is as if Carol is a revelatory time capsule, drawing us deeper into her mystery and secrets, where a simple act of love comes at a staggering cost.
Abandon everything. Right now. See if Carol is playing anywhere near you. See her by yourself, with friends, your family or someone special. Go, watch one of the most beautiful and arresting love stories ever committed to film.
You have nearly arrived.
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith
Running Time: 118 min