Falling in love is awful. That normal, stable person that you used to be disappears, vanished like a dream on waking. Good sense and judgement are temporarily abandoned, or become concepts that require effort to achieve in any credible sense. That other person preoccupies you. To incessant, maddening degrees, either in literal thought or a more amorphous, intangible ambiance. As though, somehow, they’re all around you. And it hurts. You physically feel it. Like a stuttering in your chest. A tightness. A fault in the machine. Love turns you into a different person.
Or maybe it reveals you at your fullest. Your most completely vulnerable and honest self. The person you want to be. Maybe that’s why we love it.
That swirling, bubbling, untrustworthy, wonderful, intoxicating sensation is evoked in Todd Haynes’ Carol more acutely than cinema has seemingly managed in many, many years. Brave or foolish are those who might even attempt to capture such an abstract sensation on screen. But Haynes has found it, formed it, made it into something we can see. That yearning. For that alone, Carol is one of the year’s best films.
It’s Christmas 1950 and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is young and works in a department store. She lives in a meager apartment in a rundown building. She likes photography and has a young man named Richard (Jake Lacy) chasing after her. The first time she sees Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) she is ensorcelled. Carol is a rich housewife looking for a gift for her daughter. A carefully sculpted vision of domestic perfection as befits the era, yet with the elevation that comes from style, taste, awareness. Carol seems so precise, presenting herself exactly the way she wishes to. Therese can’t taken her eyes off of her. It’s not a lightning-struck sensation, more a persistent preoccupation. An itch.
That itch is reciprocated. Haynes’ film, which has bloomed from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of a novel by Patricia Highsmith, ranks alongside the great forbidden romances of cinema, standing toe-to-toe with the likes of Brief Encounter, say. Haynes has worked in this era and this field before, responsible for the critical darling that was 2002’s Far From Heaven. Yet where that film felt like a conspicuous homage to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Carol feels like less of an exercise in capturing a style of filmmaking that has gone by the way side and more like an attempt to portray such a story from a vantage of pure timelessness.
If that was the aim then he is a success. Carol doesn’t showboat, but it does impress almost constantly. This is a romantic melodrama, but one in which every character is credible. Mara conjures the adorable spirit of a bookish Audrey Hepburn as Therese. She is our tentative guide through these unknown territories of her heart, and it’s quite easy to see why Mara’s performance afforded her the Best Actress nod at Cannes this year. She is incredibly giving. She shapes Therese into a whole person. Blanchett’s work as Carol is no less impressive, and possibly the harder of the two roles to achieve. She could so easily have appeared merely glacial and hollow, yet Blanchett allows us to sees through the cracks. There’s an underlying fragility and nervousness. All those thick, opulent coats are her armour. The interior is brittle.
Kyle Chandler plays Harge, Carol’s exasperated husband, negotiating his way stubbornly, even forcefully, through their separation, aware of Carol’s secret life. He too feels perfectly judged. We can sympathise for his frustrations even as we fear his meddling in Carol’s embrace of Therese. Sarah Paulson rounds out the key players as Abby; a close family friend and former lover of Carol’s, bringing a staunch, battle-fatigued hardness to the role, minor yet memorable.
In the main this is a showcase for Mara and Blanchett, and the chemistry captured by Haynes is intoxicating. Theirs is a relationship built from gestures, out of necessity of the times and their politics. Advances come in the form of hand movements or glances, barely caught winks and hand-written notes. The attraction between them is spoken around for a long time; they are both so aware of it that it doesn’t need naming. It’s development makes up much of the film, but this is time very well spent indeed. Few relationships on screen have felt so earned. Their love scene, when it comes, doesn’t feel exploitative or sensational. It is genuinely beautiful, totally believable.
Haynes frequently captures his key players through glass, smearing or fragmenting their faces, confining them to small sections of the screen or hiding them in reflections of their surroundings. It’s a nice visual key into the world that surrounds them, as delicately judged as nearly every aspect here. The film only once feels ungainly, when Therese is herself; an awkward conversation between her and Richard on the subject of homosexuality threatens to tip Carol toward educational dramatisation. It stands in memory as the only blunt scene, but even this is fitting, reflecting Therese’s faltering steps through her changing sense of self.
There are dashes of humour here, but they fall lightly, like a December snowfall in this part of the world. More commonly, Carol swoons with full-chested romanticism and the promise of inevitable heartbreak. It feels like a curious contradiction; at once emotionally truthful and larger than life. An exaggeration almost. But that’s how love feels. Context is forgotten. The world around it feels smaller.
Carol frames itself as a memory. We enter the story in flashback through Therese’s wide eyes searching for meaning out the window of a rain-dappled taxi. As such we encounter one key scene twice. On first approach it seems quite innocuous. An interrupted meeting between friends. By the end of the film we see it in quite another light, leaving the film’s final minutes teasing us as to the exact fate that awaits our caged lovebirds. Watching Carol is an emotive experience. And if that experience includes the emotional comedown of things falling apart (this is a drama after all), it is worth being reminded of the ruin for the more frequent celebration of those times when, whether we want it to or not, the heart soars.
Falling in love is awful. And wonderful. And awful. Maybe that’s why we tell so many stories about it. See this one.