Todd Haynes’ Carol, an almost intoxicatingly beautiful film, is a romantic drama about a love affair that springs up between two women living in New York City circa 1950. One is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a shy, somewhat aimless retail worker with a budding interest in photography; the other, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), is a well-to-do suburban housewife who spends her afternoons lunching and shopping downtown. They meet when Carol comes into the department store where Therese works to buy a Christmas present for her daughter. The two women exchange a series of coy intimacies (“How do you know so much about train sets?”, Carol asks Therese suggestively). Then Carol leaves her gloves behind (accidentally or on purpose?) and Therese sets out to return them. And with that the film is set in motion, as Therese—for whom an affair this intensely passionate is uncharted territory—and Carol fall headlong into their desire for each other.
Carol is perhaps easiest to appreciate on the level of its craftsmanship. The film’s production design and costumes are luminous in their evocation of post-war New York, which is given a slightly grainy texture by Ed Lachman’s cinematography, shot in 16mm. Even more so than in Far from Heaven, Haynes’ ode to the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Carol uses the period setting to gorgeous effect; it feels warm, lived-in, as opposed to reflexive and artificial. The performances by Mara and Blanchett are also richly modulated. Mara’s is in some ways the quieter of the two: her Therese resembles a deer caught in the headlights of Carol’s charisma. Mara’s wide-eyed stare and frozen posture suggest a woman as fascinated as she is frightened by her own awakened sexuality. Slightly older and more experienced, Carol first projects a smoldering confidence that almost comes off as haughty. We eventually come to see the woundedness and the panic for which that confidence acts as a mask. By the end, Therese has grown more sure of herself and Carol more vulnerable—and both actors have shown us the depth of these characters and their relationship.
Where Far from Heaven came off feeling slightly arch and affected (both in spite of and because of its efforts to replicate the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s), Carol feels more emotionally direct. That may be because there’s not a precise generic referent for Carol, and hence less aesthetic distance between us and the characters. Carol is set in the 1950s but it doesn’t resemble a film from that period; even the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film is based is something of an anomaly, a gay romance published before Stonewall in which the main characters aren’t punished for their homosexuality. Like Haynes’ best films (Safe, Poison), Carol doesn’t feel like a gimmick; it feels entirely original, without precedent, and therefore a little off-putting, difficult to place. It’s every bit as shot through with ideas as any of Haynes’ previous films are, and Film Studies majors will be happy to know that there’s plenty to sift through here. Haynes plays with ideas about class and consumerism, style and subculture, mothers and children, toys and gender, queerness and criminality, male gazes and female gazes. But the most daring decision Haynes makes in Carol is to tell this very queer story straight, as it were—to resist the urge to quote, pathologize, theorize. Like Carol and Therese, we fall headlong.