Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Phyllis Nagy
This is a film about love. To simply label it as a ‘gay’ film does not do it justice. Yes, the central romance of this film is between two women but in truth they could be anyone. This is a film about two souls who find each other against all odds and fall in love. Their love is universal and it is absolute. The theme of homosexuality and the social attitudes towards it do play significant parts but, to me at least, they weren’t the focus. The driving force of this film was the bond that these two women shared; it was their passion and their intimacy. Unlike many of the mainstream films you might see this day there is no titillation or exploitation to be found in this union. This is a romance that Douglas Sirk would be proud of. It is a tender tale of forbidden love in a world of suppression and oppression. There is great passion in Carol but also a profound sadness as the relationship these women share brings them both so much happiness and pain all at once. Few films are as sensitive or as moving.
The film opens with a fitting homage to Brief Encounter, depicting an unheard conversation between the two leads with a clear significance that won’t be revealed until we’ve seen what came before. We find out that Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a woman from a privileged background trapped in a loveless marriage to her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meanwhile is a meek, timid girl working in a Manhattan department store but who dreams of living a more fulfilling life. A chance encounter between them leads to a friendship that gradually blossoms into a romance. This union becomes threatened by Harge however as he shows his determination to keep Carol in his grasp by any means necessary. As the love between Carol and Therese grows stronger the forces that threaten to keep them apart become more dangerous and so both women must question how much they are willing to endure for the sake of love.
That the film was able to depict such a touching and affectionate portrayal of the romance that these women share is in large part due to the actresses playing them. Blanchett delivers a sublime performance as the alluring and seductive Carol. This character exudes of class and confidence but conceals a hidden vulnerability that comes to light as Harge’s threats become more severe. There is an acute tragedy to this character who knows who she is and what she wants but cannot have it for fear of losing everything she holds dear. Mara gives a less showy but equally stirring performance as the shy, unassertive Therese. Through her relationship with Carol she experiences a sexual awakening as she discovers a side of herself that she never knew, or perhaps knew on some level all too well, was there. By falling in love with Carol she finds a strength and an independent will within herself that carries her forward even as they stand to lose each other. Between them they deliver two of the most affective performances of the year as they portray a romance that is both moving and heartbreaking.
The beauty of this film comes not only from Blanchett and Mara but also from Haynes’ direction. In his recreation of the 1950s setting he captures a mood that is both melancholy and mystical. There is a real exquisiteness to the look of this film with its gorgeous colours and transcendent lighting but it seems somehow subdued. Although the cinematography is stylish and graceful there is something very controlled and exact about the way the shots are framed. The colours are warm but they lack the vibrancy of the cinema of this time, opting for a more muted palette. The film is set in the loud, lively city of New York and yet there is a marked stillness and quietness to the imagery. The fact that Therese herself is a photographer takes on a significance as the film depicts the world around her with the same sort of abstraction and focus found in photography. The effect is simply stunning and perfectly captures the tone of the film.
It isn’t often that a film gets made which is able to illustrate a sweeping romance such as this with such beauty, such feeling and such sensitivity. Every element is employed in just the right way to create a delicate and tender portrait of love, desire and passion. It sets this film at a time when such a union as this was considered immoral and taboo, highlighting the social attitudes and injustices that threaten to keep these two women apart. It is said that we do not choose who we fall in love with. Carol depicts that feeling by providing two individuals who in spite of the lives they have lived and what they have been raised to think and believe find intimacy and contentment in each other’s arms. Whatever trials and tribulations befall them, it is that bond which remains at the heart of the film and which makes it as touching and enthralling as it is.