Carol is above all about atmosphere. Set around Christmas Time, the film is decked in shades of gold: the jewellery on Cate Blanchett’s eponymous character Carol; the glow of winter decorations; the tint of the film’s photography. With superb performances by Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Todd Haynes creates a beautiful, mesmerising love story.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, the film centres on Therese (Rooney Mara) a shop assistant in a New York department store in the 1950s. The store is where she meets Carol, a wealthy socialite shopping for her daughter’s Christmas presents. Fascinated by each other, the women meet for lunch, from which a slow, languorous seduction ensues. Therese is semi-engaged to Richard (Jake Lacy) and unenthusiastic about the relationship. A good decade older, Carol lives in a mansion in the countryside, separated from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and awaiting a divorce. Mara and Blanchett have chemistry, based on an extended and satisfying build-up: their two characters become good friends before anything else.
From the get-go Mara is costumed – and looks like – a young Audrey Hepburn, and shares her air of innocence. However, her character is rather different from Hepburn’s usual type. Therese is nerdy – she likes trains and photography – and is enterprising about moving her career forward, in contrast to say, the characters of Sabrina or Princess Ann, who mainly let events happen to them.
Mara is thoroughly convincing as a young woman oscillating between two lives. Yet, Blanchett steals every scene. Carol’s conflict with her husband Harge allows Blanchett to showcase her stunning acting range. Whenever alone with Therese she is cool, suave, and collected. Each of her gestures speaks elegance. Yet in her husband’s presence she trembles, her self-assuredness whisked away. The film may be women-led, but the story is quick to remind that it is set in a world dominated by men.
Backed by a formidable cinematography by Edward Lachman, the film gains gravity through Carter Burwell’s laconic soundtrack – a Philip Glass-like composition (think The Hours, which shares some themes and is set in a similar period.) All of these elements combine to create a slow, languorous and stylish atmosphere. The image’s tint, Hayne’s direction, and Sandy Powell’s sumptuous costuming make the film look like a series of beautifully composed vintage photographs. Add to this the beauty of New York decked in Christmas decorations, or wide fields covered with snow and Carol becomes an utterly compelling alternative vision to the classic 50s’ All-American life.
The plot’s key turning point is not entirely credible, relying on a series of unlikely coincidences. Yet this is a minor point considering the otherwise magnificent scripting by Phyllis Nagy. Carol also has an unusual ending for the genre – and it’s wholly satisfying.
Carol is a film like few others: for its uncompromising focus on three-dimensional female characters; its elegant, restrained cinematography; the excellence of its acting; and an eloquent, measured script. It is essential viewing and deserves nods in the upcoming awards season.
Carol is in UK cinemas on general release.