| Dir: Todd Haynes
The film of 2015 that has had audiences, critics and award panels swooning – Todd Haynes’ film of feeling is deserving of all its acclaim. It’s an exquisite, earnest and sophisticated cinematic experience, orchestrated with an immaculately textured touch.
And what a touch on the shoulder it is that frames this portrait of forbidden love in 1950s New York between Carol (Cate Blanchett), a middle aged domesticated socialite, and Theresa (Rooney Mara), a youthful store clerk and aspiring photographer. Carol’s hand on Theresa’s shoulder is infused with all the longing that we come to be devastated by. She never wants to let go and Therese never wants her touch to fade.
This is an accomplished love story that lucidly projects the allure between both characters. Haynes charts their emotional journey from intrigue to curiosity to elation to desperation to doom to vulnerability to heartbreak to relief to freedom. And we’re with them at every stage. It so elegantly places you into the heart of their bond, combined with the complexity of the social structures surrounding their romance and their actions within that environment. It’s a commendably subtle insight to their psyches that’s matched by beautiful and human performances. Blanchett and Mara are such indelible performers and it’s hard to view their performances here in isolation. They feel fused together and inseparable, as if one amalgamated whole.
Two moments in particular have stayed with me so vividly. First is a scene in the second half between Carol and her husband Harge’s lawyers as they negotiate the terms of their divorce, where Blanchett’s exasperated and vulnerable outburst fills you with empathy. Harge’s position and desperation to retain a semblance of social normality is not portrayed as vengeful or antagonistic, but as a full voiced and well rounded. It enhances the central love story even more in a rich tapestry of battling against post-war social convention. The second scene involves a telephone call from Carol to Therese towards the end of the film. Carol cannot say a word and hovers her finger above the disconnect button while Therese whispers for her to make a sound, even though she needs no clarification for what Carol wants to say. These are heart stopping moments where you experience complete assimilation with these characters. It’s them at their most primal and exposed.
Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Price of Salt which Carol is adapted from, is moreso known for writing about the criminal world rather than melodramatic love. But criminal is exactly how the love developed here between two women is regarded; a time when this kind of relationship was dangerous and forbidden. They’re human beings living in a society not yet tolerant or accepting of them as human beings. It’s an oppressive society, but Todd Haynes’ hold on the composition of this world is anything but oppressive. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy are more interested in the reactions of characters and their behaviours, rather than the actions themselves – a look to a hand on a shoulder, the slightest or shortest of smiles, shooting the non-speaker for much of the conversation, suspended silences, loaded glances between them. They all speak volumes when the characters cannot voice their feelings. Because of the social context, the dialogue is carefully restricted to what is essential to communicate immediate feelings between them. It’s calculated and clinical communication, which the breathtaking final scene epitomizes.
Carter Burwell’s aching score is a further aspect of the film that speaks for the characters when they have no permission to vocalise. It’s fabulous work that penetrates the characters. With a trophy case including Coen Brothers, Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze (and Twilight…), this surely ranks on the top shelf of his illustrious output. The same can be said for all personnel involved, such is the quality of Carol. There’s hope for these two as the film concludes. Carol says that she’s released Therese before this, following the rumbling of their affair. But she never has – and we are never released from them, thankfully.
For more of my in-depth analysis and thoughts on Carol, listen to episode 11 of the Project Projection podcast