Todd Haynes (who has a history examining what makes up the “homosexual identity mixed with classic melodramatic pieces”) was the perfect choice to film the adaptation of The Price Of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel about two women who boldly defy the strict social conformity in their 1950s. Even with the high expectations surrounding the adaptation of The Price Of Salt, nothing will prepare you for the startling impact of Carol. Carol is a beautifully developed, deeply felt love story that flushes out every nuance of its characters inner lives with great intelligence, amazing poise, and masterful filmmaking. Carol is right in-line with Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce to the point where it could be easily called a companion piece. Carol is an inricate re-creation of mid-20th-century Americana and should have little trouble receiving critical praise, especially for Cate Blanchett. Blanchett’s portrayal of Carol is incandescent and will translate into significant year-end attention.
It’s rare to have a film with this much prestige centering around a homosexual relationship during the 1950’s, but Carol does seem to be generating a warmer audience embrace than films like Brokeback Mountain did ten years ago. The obvious differences between the two films go beyond the mere fact that Carol takes place in the 1950’s; Haynes’ film is not framed as a tragedy. For all its period restraint, Carol speaks to a larger issue that applies unmistakably to the present moment. It’s a modern film, disguised as 1950’s family drama.
The story takes place during Christmas 1950. A quiet Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) leads a boring seemingly ordinary existence, holding down a temporary job in the doll section at a Manhattan department store (Haynes does seem to have a thing for dolls in his films). Into this world of manufactured items and display cases (which looks amazing thanks to the amazing production designer Judy Becker) steps Carol Aird (Blanchett) who’s looking to shop for a Christmas gift for her daughter.
The moment when Therese first sets eyes on Carol is a classic, unadorned love-at-first-sight moment. Therese uses Carol mistakenly leaving her gloves at the counter as a way to secure a second meeting. Haynes’ talent as a director is on full display during a scene where the two women have lunch at a nearby restaurant. He’s able to up the pace of the shot (which portrays anxiousness) during very soft yet very vunerable encounter and visualize the unspoken desire that these two women have for each other.
One of the film’s more remarkable moments is, despite their obvious differences in class and background, Therese and Carol seem to ease themselves (and the audience) so quickly into a bond that neither have any interest in defining. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy makes some very smart adjustments to the text, such as having Therese aspire to a career in photography (rather than set design) her black and white practice shots of Carol adding yet another layer of desire to Haynes’ work of art. Carter Burwell’s score is both haunting and quite appropriate for the story being told. Burwell’s use of two-step progressions and random repititions seemed the perfect undercurrent to the longing that Carol and Therese felt. Haynes seems to have faith in the whole process and he’s able to achieve final product that is eloquence beyond words.
Rooney Mara is as mesmerizing as she was in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, albeit in an entirely different film. Mara seems at her best when she plays the role of a person who’s guarded, yet unafraid to pursue what she wants. Her longing for Carol is the most important part of the film and if it’s not done with the appropriate balance then Carol becomes a joke. Lucky for us, not only does Mara step up to the challenge, but delivers quite possibly the best performance of her acting career.
Carol ultimately belongs to Blanchett, and rightly so. In a world of smothering decorum and forced family cheer, Blanchett illuminates the screen with her best performance since Blue Jasmine. What caught me off guard was Blanchett’s method in Carol to play the role in a much more quiet and underplayed tone. Her decision pays off because what we have is a deeper and fuller performance from Two-time Oscar winner.
Overall, there is a reason why Carol ended up on my Top 15 films list of 2015 and that’s because it’s sensational. It’s superbly wriiten, brilliantly acted, and skillfully shot, an amazing film and a triumph for the cast and crew. At this point it’s a foregone conclusion that both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both destined to be nominated for an Academy Award for their roles respectfully. Monkeys Fighting Robots own Larry Taylor even predicted as much in his Oscar article recently. While I’m not sure how Mara will fare against the field of contenders, Blanchett is a different story all together. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Carol is in such a class by itself that we all should start getting use to the idea of Cate as a three-time Oscar Winner.
Regardless of whether Carol wins any Oscars doesn’t take away from the idea this film needs to be celebrated. In a world where see the same regurgitated nonsense played on screens again and again, it’s refreshing to finish watching a film and feel delight.