As winter comes upon us and the nights draw in, it seems natural to reflect on the fruits of the previous year. But considering 2015’s cinema releases, the quality seems as scarce as the leaves on the trees. So let’s give thanks that a genuinely good film has arrived to leave 2015 looking a little sprightlier.
Carol is the latest film by veteran US indie director Todd Haynes, a sensuous, nuanced romance between two women set in 50’s America. Rooney Mara plays Therese, an elfin, wide-eyed store clerk who catches the eye of Carol, played by Cate Blanchett. If Therese is shy and unsure of herself, then Carol is the opposite; confident, worldly, seductive. While Therese, betrothed to her beefy fiancee, struggles with her feelings of attraction, we learn that Carol already has enough experience of the same sex. In the midst of a messy divorce to her rich husband Harge, Carol’s dalliances with her friend Abby has left their marriage soured.
There is a brilliantly concise scene early on in the film where Therese and her journo friend discuss why people are attracted to a certain type of picture or subject. The message of the scene is clear; there is no real rhyme or reason to why one person is attracted to another, it just happens. As their attraction deepens, Carol and Therese lose sight of the world around them and embark on a roadtrip across the country, escaping their bewildered spouses. It is, for the most part, wonderfully idyllic. Soulful gazes out at wintery landscapes, hushed intimacy, and passionate lovemaking.
That it begins to fall apart is inevitable, this IS a melodrama after all. Haynes has ploughed this furrow in previous films, most notably Far From Heaven, which dealt with similar themes of repression and forbidden romance. It’s an unusual story however for the writer Patricia Highsmith. She was widely known for her razor sharp, twisty psychological thrillers, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley. Carol, on the other hand, while flawlessly plotted, is warmer and less cynical. It will go down as one of the finest Highsmith adaptations yet.
I don’t think there has been a better performance by Blanchett. She is at times dominant, prowling, other times vulnerable, beaten. When she is on screen there is a radiant glow that draws you towards her, and we can see why Therese is so intoxicated with her. Rooney Mara is very fine as well, perfecting the role of the otherworldly, glacial younger woman. The film is very interesting in how it subverts the traditional gender roles; while we have seen plenty of femme fatales on screen, it is rare to see a character like Carol seducing another woman in such a dominant manner. But it is tender too.
Haynes has always been a sensory film maker, if we think back to his claustrophobic thriller Safe and how he manipulated the banal sights and sounds of LA into a horror tale. Carol is of course quite different, but similarly immersive. The film is shot through with a warm, nostalgic glow and the camera sidles in closely to the characters; lingering, loving shots of fur coats, china white hands and blushed cheeks. It is not just that you observe the intoxication of love with these characters, it is that you actually begin to feel it. Carter Burwell’s delicate score echoes the ebb and flow of the scenes faultlessly.
Carol is one of those rare films that is intelligent and cerebral but also naked and sentimental. Every beat of the story is marked by an emotional authenticity; there is not a misstep or a stumble here. Haynes and his crew turn an incisive eye on the tribulations of 50’s repression and give us a moving portrayal of two human beings struggling against an unjust society. It is a testament to the film that we feel with them every step of the way.