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'Carol' Review: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara's 1950's Lesbian Thriller

By Caspar Salmon | Film | November 20, 2015 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | November 20, 2015 |

Todd Haynes has always been a master at probing the conflict between the public and the private: from his short film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story to Far From Heaven via Velvet Goldmine, his work often dwells on the disconnect between the face someone presents to society and the inner truth, the turmoil at the heart of his characters. This aspect of his filmmaking is radical and queer, because it suggests that in everyone there lie unspoken feelings, depths that are fundamentally at odds with the world at large. In turn, he presents this disconnect in a multitude of ways, often shaping the very form of his film to fit his subject (think of the multiple personas he gives Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, or the way he plays with melodrama in Far From Heaven).

This makes him the ideal fit to direct Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel about an illicit love affair between two women in early 1950’s America. Immediately in the film you see Haynes’ emotional precision, his sensitivity, as he shows the many ways in which these women have to signal their attraction and desire to each other, the ways they must silence all spontaneity of gesture in public. He shows so well what is going on beneath the immaculate surfaces he presents. In this film, Haynes often depicts his protagonists through misty, dirty or tainted glass, showing them as they present themselves to the world, but also hinting at thoughts and motivations behind these exteriors. His camera picks his characters out at distance or mid-range when they are in public, but these shots give way to some exquisite, passionate close-ups when they are alone and can be themselves. He also adroitly captures the small, significant gestures, expertly picking out the meaning in a hand placed on a shoulder or eyes allowing themselves to rove over a face for four dangerous seconds.

He’s significantly helped by the ability and commitment of his actors. Cate Blanchett plays the title character, Carol Aird, a woman going through divorce and a bitter custody battle with her husband. She becomes involved very quickly in a love affair with Therese (Rooney) a young sales assistant and aspiring photographer. Blanchett and Mara do a close to miraculous job here, conveying through an unbelievable precision of gesture all their excitement, anxiety and repressed joy at the outset of this relationship. The scene in which they first meet and talk over Therese’s sales counter is a marvel of acting, each look exchanged between them building on the previous one, each quickly cast glance loaded with a metric tonne of emotion. They also succeed in creating a heady chemistry that grows with each scene, so that the film’s later stages have a thumping intensity that sort of grips and chokes you. Finally, the best part of the actors’ performances is their difference in tone: Rooney Mara plays Therese with a great deal of naturalism, showing her often on the brink of tears, always prey to her feelings of confusion, desire and guilt. Meanwhile Blanchett’s performance exists on a far more stylised level, presenting someone who is a prisoner of her own life, whose every day is a struggle to put a face on her feelings. This difference in registers lends the movie an added charge: the two women complement each other, and feed the spirit of the film itself.

As Carol proceeds, it takes on more and more the aspect of a thriller as it becomes clear the women may be found out, jeopardizing Carol’s chances of obtaining custody. This is exciting, but it also provides the film’s one flaw, which is that it sticks perhaps too rigidly to plot. While the story is interesting and all elements of the movie’s design, from costume to photography, are nothing less than captivating, you could be forgiven for wanting something more, another level that would set the film free a little. By adhering to its narrative so closely, the movie doesn’t attain a further dimension, never quite achieves greatness. In Far From Heaven, there are a few magical occasions where Haynes allows himself some moments of liberation from pure plot, where his characters take time off from the story to just exist and his filmmaking revels in itself, enjoying its own colours, rhythms and dreaminess. It’s perhaps the point of Carol that everything feels so constrained, but the odd flourish might not have gone amiss. In a delicate sex scene the two women share, Therese asks Carol to take her clothes off, saying “I want to see you”: it’s a touching moment in which Therese’s growing confidence is revealed — but I also want this film to take its clothes off, on occasion, and let me truly see it.