Since it first played at Cannes, one of the most praised films of the year has been Todd Haynes’ Carol. It’s been a serious contender for awards since it was first shown with it winning big at the New York Critics Circle Awards at the time of writing. Having said that, I wasn’t familiar with most aspects of the film prior to seeing it. I’d seen the trailers but I hadn’t read the book nor have I seen any prior Todd Haynes films so my expectations weren’t as high. With that said, I have to say that Carol is a great film, but I don’t quite think it’s the masterpiece that everyone else is saying it is.
The plot concerns Carol Aird, a New York socialite who, whilst buying a toy for her daughter for Christmas, leaves her gloves at the counter of Therese Belivet. After Therese returns the gloves, she strikes up a friendship with Carol which soon turns more romantic. However, Carol is also undergoing a pretty ugly divorce and her relationship with Carol may cause threats to her battle for custody over her daughter. The main area where the film works is the area where it needed to in order to work at all and that’s the relationship between Carol and Therese. There’s this great sense of intimacy throughout all their scenes together and there is a deep caring that the two have, them doing everything they can to see each other, they support each other (Carol supporting Therese’s aspiring photography by buying her a new camera and Therese being a shoulder of support for Carol during the divorce). When it gets to the end and the two have to be divided it is heartbreaking to watch which shows just how involved I was in the relationship. The film also does a good job showing a bit of a noir feeling through the attitudes to homosexuality during the 1950s. We see the bedroom they spend the night together in used as a crime scene, Carol being followed to keep her in check during the divorce, discussions over homosexuals being abnormal and psychologically damaged and this pervasive attitude by everyone around them that Carol and Therese should not be together only makes you want to see them together all the more. This is all aided by a really strong script by Phyllis Nagy which mixes all these elements in the film together in a way that feels really natural. If there is a complaint I have with the story it’s that the relationships outside of Carol and Therese feel a bit underdeveloped, mainly Carol’s relationship with Abby, a friend and former lover of hers, and Therese’s relationship with Richard, the man who asked to marry her. The later being especially prominent as the film makes a big deal about Richard loving Therese to contrast it with the love Therese has for Carol but I never got the sense that Richard was in love with her and this did detract a bit from the film for me.
The performances meanwhile highlight everything good about the film. Cate Blanchett is excellent as Carol. There’s this grace and charm that Blanchett brings to the role that lets you understand why Therese is in love with her, along with stoicism that helps provide strength. She also shows how paternal love comes into contact with other forms of love, her pain over potentially losing her daughter being presented really effectively and her pain over everything that she’s been put through in relation to the divorce. Rooney Mara meanwhile is probably even better than Blanchett. There’s this innocence that she brings to the role that shows why Carol fell in love with her, the subtle movements of her eyes and mouth showing more emotion than any dialogue could, especially in the scenes where she’s been heartbroken by Carol, the regret and guilt on her face, her fear that she caused everything to go wrong is brilliantly presented. This also comes through with Therese not originally wanting to create a portfolio of her photographs, her fear of failure coming through and her relationship with Carol helping her to overcome it. All the attention for the performances has, rightly, gone to Blanchett and Mara but heavy praise also has to go to Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband Harge. It’s clear throughout the film that he is in love with Carol but there’s this impotent rage that the character has throughout, thinking he knows best, thinking he knows about Carol and it’s clear he doesn’t know anything and the anger mixed with regret that Chandler brings to the role is incredibly engaging to watch.
The technical side of the film is excellent as well, all of it invoking the feel of the 1950s. The production design adds a real weight to the world and the costume design helps this and informs the changes the characters go through during the film, mainly the changes for Carol and Therese. The music meanwhile adds to the overall atmosphere of the film which helps make the film so effective. The cinematography and direction is excellent as well, mainly with the decision to film in 16mm, the grainy style doing a better job than anything else on the technical side to reflect the mood and the atmosphere of the time.
Overall, Carol is a great film, but not quite the masterpiece everyone else is saying it is. There are a few story problems I had with the film but this is more than made up for with incredible central performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, top notch production and costume design, a strong script and great direction from Todd Haynes.
My Rating: 4/5