In Carol, director Todd Haynes’ phenomenal adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s controversial-at-the-time 1952 novel “The Price of Salt”, cast and crew deliver a love story that, while technically a period piece, carries a power and poignancy that is undeniably timeless. Richly detailed, unfailingly character-driven, and heartbreakingly honest, it’s easily one of this year’s very best, and arguably belongs in any discussion of the best film work turned in by its leads, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Set in late 1950’s Manhattan, Carol tells the story of the life-changing relationship between the titular character, Carol Aird (Blanchett), the wife of a successful banker, Harge (Kyle Chandler), and Therese Belevit (Mara), a young department store clerk Carol meets while Christmas shopping for her daughter, Rindy. Their attraction to one another is instantaneous, but pursuing it is complicated considering the place in life in which both women find themselves. For Carol, whose marriage has been loveless for years and is in the process of ending officially via divorce, finding herself so strongly drawn to Therese is a surprising turn, one that she’s not altogether sure she knows how to handle but at the same time feels compelled to explore. It’s much more confusing for Therese, who has a loving boyfriend in Richard (Jake Lacy), but is ambivalent about his affection, as well as a great deal of other elements of her every day life until Carol comes along.
As the two women spend more time together and their connection deepens, things grow even more complicated, as the nature of their relationship begins to affect Carol’s divorce and custody battle for Rindy, as well as Therese’s own personal relationships and career ambitions. Facing disapproval from all sides, Carol and Therese find themselves faced with terrible choices, all of whose options lead to messy outcomes, unintended collateral damage, and ultimately answering the question of whether or not the love they’ve found is worth going against the grain of the entire world around them.
Someday, it’s going to be literally impossible to apply any superlatives to describe the depth of Cate Blanchett’s talent and presence as a performer that haven’t been used already. Just when one might think she’s truly set a bar for herself in terms of believability, intensity, and on-screen charisma, she delivers an even stronger, more memorable performance. Here, in Carol, she delivers arguably one of her most complex and nuanced portrayals in years, as in order to bring Carol Aird to life she’s called upon to project an astounding range of emotion and expression. Playing emotionally complex characters is nothing new for Blanchett, certainly, but what’s so striking here is how palpable she makes Carol’s uncertainty and vulnerability when it comes to her undeniable attraction to the much-younger, less worldly and experienced Therese. She’s a woman who should and does know better than to get involved with someone this way while going through her divorce from Harge, and yet she’s also driven by her heart and by impulse — all that she knows, all her previous experience, is rendered irrelevant when faced with what she comes to feel for Therese. Blanchett brings that clash of knowledge versus passion and impulse to life in a way that should be relatable to anyone watching it all unfold — such is her transcendent talent, and the quality of what she delivers in every frame in this film.
And as good as Blanchett is, Rooney Mara delivers a performance that’s every bit as compelling and riveting to watch. Mara, a truly versatile performer who thrives in challenging roles, the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and 2013’s Side Effects, just to name a few. At the outset of the film Therese is at that point in life where knowledge of what one really wants is elusive; until she meets Carol she’s simply going through the motions in her job, her friendships, and even her relationship with her boyfriend. In the course of the film Mara must convey nothing short of an emotional revelation and awakening in Therese, a full recognition and acceptance of the emptiness that characterized what came before, and just how much everything changes thanks to the tenderness, affection, and passion she finds with Carol. Arguably, Mara’s task in the film is the more difficult, in comparison to Blanchett’s, as Therese really is the film’s viewpoint character: it’s Therese’s memories of their relationship that form the core of the film’s plot, her progression toward “real” life versus simple existence, with all the highs and lows that such a journey must endure, that drives the film forward, and ultimately where she arrives emotionally by the end of the film that brings some sense of resolution to its conclusion. Through it all, Mara’s work is authentic, nuanced, and utterly captivating, worth of any and all accolades that have and will continue to come her way in regards to her efforts here.
Even beyond the strength of the lead performers here and the supporting players as well — Sarah Paulson of “American Horror Story” fame is exceptional, as always, here in a small role as Carol’s best friend and confidante, Abby, and Chandler does very well here in limited screen time as Harge — what makes Carol such a phenomenal film is just how much its story should resonate thanks to its honesty and realism in terms of relationships in the real world. Yes, this is a love story in film, but as it happens so often in real life, it’s a love story that’s messy. It happens at perhaps the worst possible time, between people who already have commitments to others who aren’t bad people, who aren’t deserving of being hurt or betrayed. It’s a story which acknowledges that following your heart, no matter how good or right that may sound, can result in tremendous wrong, and yet without question it still must be done. At least in the case of the love discovered in Carol, a quiet yet powerful ardor found between two people surrounded by the din of a world into which neither of them really fit, it’s never in question that these two people need to follow their hearts, wherever they may lead. There’s simply nothing in art or entertainment more romantic than that.
Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, and Kyle Chandler. Directed by Todd Haynes.
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.