Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Kyle Chandler
No matter the era or time period, having the ability to make a choice grants a level agency no one can take away. Whether the choice may be in-line with the cultural norms becomes immaterial. Through its velvety narrative structure and excellent performances, Carol distinguishes this power of choice in a truly sublime way.
Working in a department store, aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) locks eyes across the room with Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). After making initial friendly contact, the pair begin a loving affair, as Carol battles with a divorce from her husband and the custody dispute for her daughter.
With all of the expectations in the world, Carol hit me like a ton of bricks with how it comes together to combine tragedy and love in a completely affecting manner. It could be considered the greatest Christmas film of all time with how it utilizes the holiday season to propel its story forward and how it defines both of the characters. A time of compassion and giving allows these two not only to meet each other but also connect on an emotional level neither of them has ever felt before. The moment these two lock eyes across the room of the department store, you just know something special will happen between them. The story takes us along for the ride with other characters appearing but every moment belongs to them.
Set in 1952, it’s easy to deduce this was not an era kind to those in homosexual relationships, but Carol looks at the optics of it especially with Carol being an upper-class resident of New Jersey. The divorce proceedings between her and her husband have transpired presumably by Carol’s decision to no longer pretend to live a lifestyle she does not identify with. Unfortunately, this decision has put her in a disadvantaged position in ever having a happy ending. Therese lives a more unassuming life, working at the department store and in a relationship with her boyfriend but it lacks passion or any real emotion to it. Therese says yes to everything because she has nothing for her in life. She passes each day waiting for something to occur, and something marvelous transpires when she lays her eyes on Carol.
So much of this story could be told by the costume design and how these characters dress. The colors dictate their feelings and the way these two women progress in their journey together. The power of the color red has been utilized beautifully in so many films and Carol joins the ranks with the sense of passion and connection it infuses into the story. It also symbolizes a level of agency and power felt by the characters wearing it. Therese initially wears cool blues and greens when she enters the story as a more meek character, as opposed to Carol sporting a bold red coat. As the film progresses and they grow as characters, their colors merge and shift. The stronger colors relay a specific emotion while the more neutral ones display an indifference, which may be worse than any other combination.
The two leading actors give very different but equally impactful performances. Rooney Mara perfectly captures the meek nature of Therese at the beginning of the story. She manifests this delicate aura around her but also someone looking for something with meaning. Photography comes the closest to being something she wants to do, but beginning a romance with Carol becomes her choice and Mara expertly morphs the character into a more confident woman. Cate Blanchett delivers another trademark standout performance as the titular character. Carol carries an incredible weight on her shoulders with the pressure of her upcoming divorce and looming custody battle. Blanchett carries it well with the character by immediately becoming someone the audience wants to learn more about. We enter the story through the eyes of Therese, and Carol becomes this alluring figure. As mysterious as Carol may be from the beginning, she proves to be someone willing to be vulnerable and have Therese learn more about her. She practically begs for it.
Another major facet of the film comes from its music and the Carter Burwell score kicks off the entire feature with the beautiful opening theme where none of the main characters appear. The almost mysterious track establishing this world begins what will be an unforgettable experience for the audience and these characters. It’s truly a beautiful piece of music and one worth continually listening to on repeat.
The narrative of Carol pairs incredibly well with Todd Haynes’s other great feature, Far From Heaven. In a way, the 2002 film observed the other side of marriage no longer viable due to a spouse’s sexual liberation. Both coming from the same director inextricably connects them, but Carol has a grimmer and perhaps a more realistic perspective as to how this would play out. In either case, Haynes demonstrates his skill as a director. The shifts he makes with the camera placement to emphasize lands with incredible resonance. It truly reached its apex with a particular scene where Therese walks towards Carol, and we see the latter through the eyes of the former in an empowering manner. As a director, Haynes has been hit or miss for me, but when he hits he creates pure brilliance. Carol stands out as his greatest work, his magnum opus, and his masterpiece.
From its moody atmosphere to its beautifully touching moments of love and affection, Carol proves throughout its 118-minute runtime that it tells a story worth telling. The moments of ambiguity hurt more because it creates moments of hope with no guarantee it will end the way these characters desire. These two characters create something beautiful and become two figures attempting to find agency and utilize their voice in ways they could never do before. As their relationship evolves, the circumstances around them become dire but their bond pushes them to push past it all for each other. A truly marvelous feature film weaving together a potent story, displaying exceptional work by a director, and two strong performances by its lead. The final moments exemplify everything spectacular about this film and why it will stand as a testament to emotional strength and love.