If a picture is worth a thousand words, the look Therese (Rooney Mara) gives Carol (Cate Blanchett) as the elder lays a hand on her shoulder in their first scene of Todd Haynes’ Carol must be worth exponentially more. The entire world stops revolving during that moment, the hitch in Therese’s breath when Carol touches her shoulder, the pensive yet greedy half look in her direction, stopping short of any sort of eye contact that would give her, her emotions or her intentions away. And then, just as soon as it happens, Carol pulls away and departs, leaving Therese scrambling to keep her composure among polite company. It matters not that this is the first time they have shared the screen. Those five seconds tell it all.
Therese works at a department store in 1952 New York, going about her mostly mundane life with a mostly mundane boyfriend (Jake Lacy). Her world is turned upside down when a mysterious and alluring woman spots her from across the store and asks her advice on a Christmas present for her children. After Carol leaves her gloves behind and invites Therese to her house in order to return them, their undeniable attraction to each other begins to take hold. They must keep their affair a secret, though, as such prurient acts could serve to jeopardize joint custody of Carol’s children as her divorce with her husband (Kyle Chandler). Carol finds herself forced to choose between the love of Therese and the stability of life with her children.
This is not the first time Haynes has set one of his films in the 1950’s, coming on the heels of his acclaimed 2002 feature Far from Heaven. That film found its inspiration in the work of Douglas Sirk, and while there seems like there would be quite a bit of overlap in both style and substance, Haynes has something different in store for this one. The melodrama of Far from Heaven has not entirely diminished, but Carol generally sets itself up with perhaps a more conventional feel, though that word belies the unerring quality of every aspect of this film. From Phyllis Nagy’s script (adapting the 1952 novel The Price of Salt) through the loving cinematography from Edward Lachman (not as flashy as the Mad Max: Fury Roads and Sicarios of the world, but no less impactful), from the shrewd editing of Affonso Goncalves to Carter Burwell’s understated yet foundational score and Sandy Powell’s beautiful costuming, Haynes has put together a professional crew that sets the tone with aplomb.
The mise-en-scene of Carol is vital to its success, as the need to believe in the world around Carol and Therese is as crucial as the relationship itself. Haynes and his formidable crew manage this through not overplaying their hand and painting the setting with a subtle brush. It’s the way that McCarthyist paranoia hangs over everyone’s heads, the way that Carol rushes to put her shoes on when her husband shows up unexpectedly to not be seen in a state of too much comfort with another woman in her house, that touch to Therese’s shoulder that opens the film. These moments (and so many more) establish the fullness of this slice of 1950’s New York. Further aiding in the establishing of the road is the supporting cast, with both Jake Lacy and Kyle Chandler acting as direct representations of the patriarchy that ruled the roost at the time and Sarah Paulson as a further glimpse into what makes Carol tick, past she cannot and will not leave behind.
Indeed, all of the world-building that lays the foundation of Carol would not mean nearly as much without the two performances that form its spine. Blanchett has been at the top of her game for a good two decades now; Carol, whose tan fur coat that speaks to her moneyed privilege more than a thousand lines of dialogue could, has a preternatural poise, the result of a life full of experience and regret, of knowing the consequences of following her heart. Mara certainly does not have the longevity of her costar, but over her few short years since bursting into Hollywood in the opening scene of The Social Network, she has shown both an astute eye for varied and challenging roles and the undeniable talent to pull them off. Here, bedecked in Audrey Hepburn chic, she is wide-eyed and almost innocent in the way she sees the world, utterly entranced by Carol from the moment she spies her across the department store toy floor. She does more with a slight adjustment in her lips than many actresses can do in entire careers. In order for this film to work, the relationship at its core must be yearningly genuine, and Haynes has cut no corners in his casting. Blanchett and Mara make their scenes crackle with energy.
Carol is a story about lust as love and love as lust, a story about how just the right person can change a life in an instant, about having to choose between the carefully cultivated life of leisure and one of passion and fulfillment and danger. It is a film that speaks its words through glances both furtive and longing, through conversations in door frames, through toy trains and fedoras and santa hats. It speaks its words through words as well, of course, and Phyllis Nagy has provided a screenplay of remarkable grace. From the outside, Carol may seem unassuming. It offers no explosions or world-threatening monsters or bleeding mansions or firefights with drug cartels. Instead, it offers something altogether more critical, a perfect distillation of what it means to live in this world and what it means to fall in love, even if that love may not be acceptable within the society in which it occurs. Todd Haynes, alongside his considerably talented cast and crew, has made one for the ages, a period piece that transcends all periods. Carol is life. Carol is love.