Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff and follow the event on Twitter at @bfi.
Marking Todd Haynes’ sixth directorial dispatch, Carol is the big screen adaptation of author Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt (The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers On A Train). Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Carol enraptured viewing audiences to a standing ovation and proceeded to be nominated for a number of festival awards including the prestigious Palme d’Or prize, eventually going on to victory in the Best Actress category. In Carol, Haynes has crafted a sensual, eloquent love story centralised on two contrasting female characters: Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet, the meek and tentative department store clerk and aspiring photographer, happens upon the alluring, striking and older Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) by chance meeting who, behind the thinly-veiled facade of effortless elegance, is struggling to hold on to her crumbling reality. The ensuing romance is a heartfelt, unflinching, and tender cinematic exploration of human frailties and passions.
Every expertly positioned frame of Carol, through a half-open door or partially concealed mirror, oozes immaculate filmmaking finesse; Haynes has employed numerous narrative and cinematic devices to accurately convey transgressive, sensual eroticism in line with the film’s context, ably supported by a nuanced and emotionally balanced screenplay, thoughtful and purposeful cinematography, and two powerhouse leads. The film has been shot on Super 16mm to recreate the glamorous, muted palette of the era, an intoxicating flourish that awards the film a glowing, alluring ambience and an authentic, naturalistic medium through which to observe the unfolding of a believable love story. Carol never once feels gratuitous or ham-fisted; Haynes is consistently tender, tasteful, and tactile in the way he conveys the budding relationship of Carol and Therese. It can even be argued that a large portion of Carol is a study on seduction itself. Every subtle gesture, aching look, and fleeting touch is narratively significant, conveying more than a screenwright could ever hope to, and provides a microcosm for any intimate experience between two people in the context of love.
A consistent and recurrent theme of Carol is the various approaches Haynes takes to challenge the contextual notions of identity and sexuality in mid-century America and how, without submitting to tropes or cliches, the centralised characters are made to deal with 1950s social oppression. The shady, domestic noir the film encapsulates is distinctive in the sense that it belongs only to a specific era, and the sense of agonising urgency and futile melancholy is also reflective of this. Introductory pleasantries exchanged between Carol and Therese that appear to span half of the film’s running time are metaphorical of the social constraints and boundaries that the characters are repelling; the very suggestion of a relationship between two women surpassing a platonic margin was utterly scandalous in 1952. Carol makes no attempts to sugarcoat this unfortunate reality, and an excruciating sense of pining permeates every second of the film.
To paint Carol as a “queer” love story is to completely demote its purpose at its most primitive as a microscopic study of love between two human beings, and the bumpy road underfoot that at times precedes it. Haynes’ filmmaking eloquence is aptly demonstrated by how little the sex of characters involved seems to matter in the narrative vein of love, and thus completely eliminates any sense of alienation that could occur. Furthermore, the depiction of the female characters as multi-layered, passionate, and at times unpredictable, is a refreshing change of direction from the damaging “Strong Female Character” trope of modern filmmaking; Carol and Therese are complex, appropriately vulnerable, and satisfyingly unique entities with their own merits and flaws. Ultimately, they are believable.
Carol is a delectably compelling and tactfully sensuous undertaking that is brimming with nuanced eroticism, undertones of complex social subtext respective to its era, and delightful artistic flourishes. Cate Blanchett embodies the tantalisingly seductive yet conflicted nature of Carol Aird perfectly alongside Rooney Mara’s disillusioned Therese Belivet succumbing to an all-too familiar love-induced naivety, against a backdrop of exquisite production design (Judy Becker) and eloquent, expressive direction. No shot of Carol is wasted, and Haynes’ use of gaze in the final few moments of the film is satisfyingly spot-on; the lingering of knowing eyes between two characters for whom the audience has grown to care removes any need for words whatsoever.
Carol is a delectably compelling and tactfully sensuous undertaking that is brimming with nuanced eroticism, undertones of complex social subtext respective to its era, and delightful artistic flourishes.