As great as they are, the films of Todd Haynes have always walked a delicate line between gimmickry and stylization. 1998’s Velvet Goldmine was a hallucinogenic explosion of influences, a glam rock Citizen Kane that at the time drew more attention for its exaggerated David Bowie re-telling than for its artistic endeavours. His Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There meanwhile became notable for having six different actors portray the singer at different stages in his life, an abstract take universally admired if not outright appreciated. Even his most well received film, the swooning romance Far From Heaven was so perfectly constructed in its 1950s influences that its themes occasionally became lost amid the overwhelming stylization. Each outing clearly demonstrated a master at his craft, yet could never quite balance a seamlessly told story with the class of the filmmaking.
Carol comes eight years after I’m Not There, reuniting the director with his scene-stealing star of that movie, Cate Blanchett. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s landmark 1952 novel The Price Of Salt, Haynes’ sixth feature film in 24 years tells the story of Therese, a reserved shopgirl drawn into a relationship with the title character – a charismatic aristocrat played with sweeping theatricality by Blanchett. What begins as a chance encounter between the two in a Manhattan department store gradually evolves into a sumptuously told love story defying various obstacles along the way. Carol is a devoted mother but unhappy wife trapped in a marriage by her vindictive husband Harge. The always underrated Kyle Chandler gives Harge a vulnerability in his anger and desperation, doing everything in his power to thwart the budding relationship between the mother of his child and the much younger Therese. It’s a straight forward plot that Haynes treats as seriously as possible without ever becoming overwrought or unrealistic.
The book was controversial at the time for its positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship, but here the gender of the two protagonists is all but irrelevant. This is a love story, plain and simple, imagined in the most evocative way possible. Haynes is known for his painstaking preparation, and the long gap between movies may go some way to explaining the perfection he reaches on this film. It’s a privilege to witness any artist reach a career peak, but another thing entirely when it comes this long into a career, with so many brilliant pieces of work behind it. As expected, it looks phenomenal – dripping in warm colours and immaculate costumes, the cinematography revolving in gorgeous detail around Blanchett and the incredible Rooney Mara as Therese.
The film is bookended by two stunningly crafted scenes – an interrupted conversation between the two main characters to open the film and a final wordless moment to finish. The latter provides a beautifully restrained ending that balances perfectly between heartwarming resolution and hopeful uncertainty, while the former serves as a suitable introduction to the world Haynes creates here in a pivotal scene he revisits later in the movie. It opens with an awkwardly emotional exchange given an incredible intimacy through the barest of movements. With very little context it becomes immediately clear just how strong the feelings are between the two women, their eyes locked on each other and hesitation in their voices. The camera patiently surveys the situation, lingering on small details that offer hints of what’s to come. A friend of Therese stumbles on the couple and as Carol stands to introduce herself the camera instead stays focussed on Therese, Carol’s hand resting gently on her shoulder as she struggles to contain her heartache.
The pull and yearning of love has arguably never been depicted better in film, much of which comes down to the performances of Mara and Blanchett. Cate is a living legend and is as great here as she always is, but Mara is a revelation. In a relatively short career she has become an expert at expressing underlying feeling in any role she inhabits, from the muted aggression of her breakthrough role in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo to her David Fincher debut as Zuckerberg’s exasperated ex-girlfriend in The Social Network. Where Blanchett dominates the screen, Mara is subtle, subdued, and all simmering emotion. Her character drifts through each scene content to fade into the background, but Mara’s utterly mesmerizing performance ensures she remains centre stage throughout.
Haynes uses these performances superbly, holding different moments in the film an unexpected beat longer to capture a look here or a movement there. His depiction of love in both its joyful innocence and heartbreaking despair is presented immaculately – in Mara’s most heart wrenching scene Therese is left breathless and crumbling after a desperate phone call to Carol goes unanswered, one of many instances of complication in their relationship. The first meeting between the two is even better presented, locking eyes through a crowded store before a brief conversation littered with meaningful pauses and glances. The looks between the two reveal so much that any dialogue would be overreaching. It begins as a mutual curiosity rather than love at first sight. Both women feel an undeniable connection from the outset, slowly revealing themselves with every subsequent meeting and exchange.
This is patient and precise filmmaking, a work of art that looks like a painting come to life. Far From Heaven is the closest comparison from Haynes’ catalogue, but where that movie had a heightened unreality to it, Carol is instead welcoming in its effortlessness. In that film it occasionally felt like the stylization was smoothing over any cracks in the plot or awkward dialogue, here it feels like there are no cracks to smooth over, no rough edges needing a shine. Everything is running in one cohesive motion, completely in sync. Haynes isn’t trying any radical experimentations here, which may irritate some of his more intense fans, but it’s to the film’s benefit. In simplifying he’s created a breath of fresh air, a piece of art in stark contrast to the majority of today’s films. A film both out of its time yet timeless, Carol is an elegant classic.