by Ken Bakely
In Todd Haynes’ Carol, every moment has the potential to carry untold weights of hidden significance. From the smallest interpersonal (or intrapersonal) action to the emotions behind the briefest of glances, rewards to the patient viewer are plentiful as the weight of the production becomes apparent. The movie carries a handful of big, handedly-delivered sequences, and they are delivered with grace and consistency, but the degree to which minutia is conceived and depicted is a big part of what makes this film so great. Additionally, the duo of Haynes with cinematographer Edward Lachman continues to be a match made in heaven. The two turn in what is arguably one of the most beautifully shot films of quite some time, using the period-replicating grain of Super 16 to encapsulate a transfixing story in a bubble. It exists in a world behind a thin, transparent veneer. Combined with impeccable acting from co-leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the viewer is invited to enter and fall into the depths below.
Carol is set in the winter of 1952-53, the same time that the Patricia Highsmith novel it is based on was first published. Therese (Mara) is a young shopgirl at a department store in New York City. It’s days before Christmas, and the floors are flooded with customers from sunrise to sunset. It becomes menial, exhausting work for Therese, until she meets Carol Aird (Blanchett), a housewife about ten to fifteen years older than her. Carol is an endearing, charming woman, despite the fact that she is locked in a battle for the custody her young daughter with her soon-to-be-ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Therese finds herself growing closer and closer to Carol, and as the holidays draw to a close, the two women embark on a westward journey to escape their respective status quos. In the process, they will enter into a romance forbidden by the time in which they live, while shadows of life at home are never far away.
Despite its title, Carol is not duly focused on Blanchett’s character. Instead, the film is seen through the eyes of Mara’s Therese. The Highsmith novel is entitled The Price of Salt, which does not imply the dominance of either character. While this would have probably been a better way to market the project, it’s not detrimental to the scope of Haynes and company’s achievements. It’s hard to capture the significance of a sympathetic portrayal of gay characters in a work of fiction published in the 1950s, but screenwriter Phyllis Nagy makes a lot of good decisions in attempting to convey the importance of the source material. She succeeds in constructing an adaptation which is, within the context of its universe, entirely oblivious to any time except the one in which it is set and so intensely evocative within.
Carol’s visual approach, shot on Super 16 film, is a key factor of its enveloping tone. It’s a vaguely color-muted, vaguely fantastical affair, a look which almost resembles a dream. Sequences set in the department store, where Carol and Therese meet, are washed in a fluorescent, sickly off-green dimness, whilst the hotels and motels which comprise of their road trip stops are lit in warm, golden incandescent bulbs. The mixed palette and silky overtones are combined hauntingly in a scene in which the two main characters drive through a tunnel. Still images and blurred lights are laid on top of each other, the camera fixed through the montage and on Therese, her mind racing in the passenger’s seat as a droning, washed out version of Helen Foster’s cover of “You Belong to Me” plays on the car radio, a distant background to greater thoughts. The lyrics are at once both fitting to the scenario and utterly ignored for more pertinent things. This scene, which has been waxed euphoric over since the film’s premiere, is a well-condensed thesis of what the picture is about as a whole – watercolor memories, tainted by subsequent events and yet sealed forever within.
The screenplay’s internal rhythms resemble poetry, although neither rigidly structured or anarchically free-verse. Every action and plot point comes at just the right time, a perfectly paced feature which leaves a stunning wave of feelings in its wake. With a glassy score by Carter Burwell – a smooth, humming concoction of strings and individual strikes, Haynes’ visual achievements mixed with Blanchett and Rooney’s authentic, well-driven performances come together to create an unforgettably impactful and meaningful final result. Carol is an incredibly beautiful movie in every sense of the word. It’s submerged in the aesthetic pleasures of its setting (with longing shots of outfits, cars, and interior design) as much as it is infatuated with the deep boundaries of the writing. However, it also refutes excessive melodrama, finding a place both distant enough and sufficiently intimate, where we as the viewer are able to feel everything with painful pinpoint accuracy, although through a cooled screen. It’s a perpetual chill as icy as New York City’s December air.