Phyllis Nagy (Novel: Patricia Highsmith)
Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland
R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Love. Aching, forbidden love. Society’s strictures on the time, place and content of openly expressed love have evolved over time, but the universality of hiding it away from others out of fear will always find root in our minds. Todd Haynes’ gorgeous Sirkian period drama Carol brings a haunting love affair to life with passion, keen observation and an understanding that true love transcends time and place.
Rooney Mara stars as the emotionally repressed Therese Belivet, a department store clerk whose appreciation for naturalistic photography have provided her with inspiration and solace while those around her are exuberantly experiencing life in its myriad forms. She has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy), but their rocky relationship begins to crumble after Therese encounters a beautiful older woman (Cate Blanchett) browsing the toy trains on her floor. It’s through her encounter with this mysterious upper middle class woman that she comes to better understand herself and what has kept her separated from the men in her life.
Blanchett’s titular Carol Aird doesn’t have her life together anymore than Therese. Subject to divorce proceedings after her husband (Kyle Chandler) uncovered her simmering relationship with another woman (Sarah Paulson), Carol works tirelessly to keep Harge from taking her young daughter, the most important figure in her life. Yet, in the presence of Therese, her emotional fragility is strengthened and she begins to fight back against his tyranny even at the risk of losing someone she loves.
Haynes has always appreciated the somewhat surreal emotional conflicts at the heart of Douglas Sirk’s passionate melodramas of the 1950’s. Visually striking imagery surrounds immense houses of cards teetering on the brink of collapse, his subjects walking the fine line between love and societal norms. In Carol, he’s found perhaps his most compelling and striking narrative, opting for a quiet, subtle and slow boiling masterpiece of love, regret and the ramifications of same-sex attractions in the heart of an intolerant world.
Mara for her part plays Therese beautifully, crafting a passionate, reserved, careful thinker searching for herself while exploring what makes her feel safe, secure and loved. She does not find it with men her own age, but with a woman whose fragile emotional state hides behind a exquisitely coiffed, manicured and unblemished veneer, cracking outside of the view of her contemporaries. As isolated and afraid as Therese feels. Mara’s understated performance causes the film to soar when she’s on screen. Each stunningly realized interaction with Carol is a powder keg of emotions carefully tamped down under layers of propriety and artifice.
Contrast this with the masterful performance Blanchett delivers, which is evocative, strong and commanding even when her character is falling apart inside. As her persona is slowly chipped away, her volatility explodes in a delicious and poignant boardroom scene between Carol and her husband while their lawyers look on in shock and dismay. Together, the contrast and comparison between Carol and Therese is striking, but genuinely universal, reflecting the type of subdued passion many experience in their daily lives when unable to express themselves truly and honestly with the world around them.
Paulson, Chandler and John Magaro, who plays one of Therese’s friends and attempted suitor, deliver solid support to the brilliant duo in the lead of the film. They provide sharp counterpoints to each moment. Paulson displays the concern and confidence of a woman not afraid to be herself even when it could mean an ill fate; Chandler in his drunken assertiveness demanding Carol’s obeisance while unconcerned with her unhappiness; and Magaro, the innocent figure certain of his place in Therese’s life, but surprised by both her lack of interest and in the certitude of her sexual identity.
You can’t create the vitality of life in a Haynes film without sumptuous period detail. Production designer Judy Becker with the assistance of set decorator Heather Loeffler dig into the 1950’s carving out a rigorous and faithful aesthetic that draws the audience into its simple elegance and utilitarian splendor. These sets may seem perfectly manicured, but like the film’s protagonists, there are fine details that suggest something more hazy and reflective of a time we look back at longingly for its seeming perfection, a perfection dirtied by the truth.
For her part, master costumer Sandy Powell delivers wonderful gowns to the leading ladies, embodying the vibrant personalities of each. Mara is dressed in dowdy, simple designs, exemplifying her everygirl appearance, a woman unconcerned with her appearance to the world and desirous only to feel comfortable with herself and her environment. To the contrary, Blanchett is personified through her lush frocks of the finest fabrics. Each outfit highlights her origin as a woman of means who uses fashion and outward physical dominance to hide the yearning and emotional collapse in the depths of her soul.
These details are further exemplified through the work of makeup artist Patricia Regan and hairstylists Jerry DeCarlo, Jack Curtain, Kay Georgiou. Their attention to period styles and the societal repression of these characters add immeasurably to the work. When such craft details come together, a beautiful, entrancing film takes shape and drops the audience precisely where it needs to be to visually and emotionally connect with its contents.
Yet, of all the technical gloriousness of the film, one element is superior to the superlative craftsmanship of the film’s other disciplines. Edward Lachman’s photography on the film is painterly, a luscious canvas filled with the rich colors provided to him by Becker and Powell. These scenes are composed in exacting detail, framed precisely, and never dull or uninteresting.
One of the most compelling elements of the photography, something seldom seen in film, is the regular framing of characters behind windows. We’re asked to peek into the lives of these women, observing their struggles at a distance in spite of being brought forcefully into their affairs. However, these windows aren’t the clean, pristine partitions most filmmakers prefer, hoping to keep their actors in stark focus. Instead, Lachman never films these characters without some sort of dingy, naturalistic filter.
Easily noticeable in the two cab scenes where first Carol and then Therese are looking fruitlessly for the other, the windows are covered with water spots, remnants of rain that hangs ominously over their troubled lives. Each time we reflect on the characters as such, our perspective is dingy, imperfect. Like life, the clutter and grime of our environment gloss over and obscure our vision, giving us an imprecise view of our surroundings and, frequently, the people in our lives. This is one of the few times where the photographic work has been so obvious, so modestly distracting, but so mesmerizing at the same time.
Haynes has always had a fascination with the films of Douglas Sirk. His modernist take on All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, exemplified his desire to recreate that aesthetic in the present film climate. Like that film, Carol is so laboriously crafted that its visceral qualities almost feel fake; however, the deeper you look into his seemingly perfect characters, the more you understand and empathize with them. Their struggles are as real as any we face today and through his lens, we experience a world of artifice supported by the struggle and the sorrow of a populace restricted by those same ideals. His is an almost fatalistic, yet ultimately hopefully and uplifting view of our glorified vision of the past.
What Haynes says about gay relationships in the 1950’s may seem simple, an exemplification of love persevering through pain and torment. There is hope there, but there’s also reality grasping at its coattails. The risk of reward is as fraught with peril as it is with the potential of joy. Finding love and keeping it requires sacrifice. How much would you do to obtain it? How strongly would you defend it. Carol is at its best when contemplating the nature of passion, love, fidelity and the tribulations of finding acceptance.
January 27, 2016