You don’t know how hearts burn
For love that cannot live yet never dies
Until you’ve faced each dawn with sleepless eyes
You don’t know what love is – Billie Holiday
Into the world of housewives, martinis, long leather gloves, Packards and country homes comes the story of a young woman’s sexual identity emerging in a world that doesn’t yet welcome it. It comes anyway. It comes the moment Therese (Rooney Mara) lays eyes on the exquisite creature known as Carol. Tall, draped in a floor length fur coat, with a shock of blonde hair swept back, she is undeniably compelling. Terese’s gaze is so direct, so purely sincere that she too becomes compelling. In a moment, Carol (Cate Blanchett) is by her side. In another moment they are arranging to meet somewhere for some reason under the guise of friendship.
There is so much beauty in Carol’s world it’s hard to imagine that any kind of ugly attitudes could have flourished around it. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from a Patricia Highsmith novel (The Price of Salt), Haynes shot the film in Super 16 with his trusty cinematographer Edward Lachmann, score by Carter Burwell, and with Sandy Powell doing the glorious costumes, Carol is top to bottom a lavishly put together film, of the kind we don’t get to see that often anymore. Carol’s entire way of being is so authentic to the time you feel like you can smell her perfume and cake powder.
Blanchett is superb as the titular character, allowing heat to flow through her as she seduces a woman years younger than her, carefully but deliberately. She bobs between resisting her husband whose touch she can’t stand, giving of herself to her adored daughter, and allowing her own indulgent pleasure to creep in when she’s with Therese. Mara, though, is the real surprise here, holding down much of the film herself, revealing tender vulnerability and that occasional dimpled smile.
It’s the 1950s. Blanchett is married with a child. Mara has a boyfriend who is looking to get married. They’re playing out what society has decided is best for them.They inch closer to each other with questions. Will you meet me for lunch, will you meet me for tea. The questions escalate and before long the two women are spending a questionable amount of time together raising suspicions about their relationship. They are drawn in by an attraction they can’t resist nor explain nor fully comprehend. They go with it because they must.
Far From Heaven was about repressed desire stuffed inside the box of a “normal marriage” until it morphs into tragedy. Carol is about the step beyond that, the bold admission, the self-acceptance. Blanchett’s husband, played by Kyle Chandler, can’t accept his wife’s ongoing affairs with other women. He vows to do everything in his power to bring her back, even going so far as to threaten her with sole custody of their child. Because he can prove she is what he says she is (a woman who’s amorous with other women) the courts will side with him and she’ll never see her daughter again.
For one of the few times in a film about gay women trapped in the wrong era, these characters are not going to be undone by the constraints of society. They’re going to work to change those constraints. This is partly where gay rights began. That is ultimately what makes this film so exhilarating. We’ve seen the tragedy. We know about the oppression. Now we see the points of light that helped lead the gay community out of the shadows. It took sacrifices and courage. Carol is about both of things but what it is about more than anything else is love. It will go down as one of the most romantic love stories of the year.
For whatever reason, Hollywood has never really gotten Haynes. Who could have conceived a film like Safe or I’m Not There or Far From Heaven. He has an explosive imagination and so far has not yet been celebrated to the degree that he deserves. All of that could very well change with Carol. It is accessible enough and up-to-the-minute in its examination of gay women finding their way during a period in history when many were sent to psychiatrists to “fix the problem,” at a time when their children were taken from them for their “deviant behavior.” Though it seems archaic, gay men and women are still dealing with finding validation for their right to parent children, even today.
How the heart does break for Carol, who finds herself in an impossible position — forced to choose between being her baby’s mother and staying true to who she really is. Her husband seems to want her to live a lie. How could that ever be preferable? When at last these women give in to their mutual desire it is their erotic passions, not ours, that drives them. Mara’s Therese learns in an instant what it means to truly be herself. That leads to other choices in her life, like her career choices, and ultimately her decision about what she feels able to do with Carol.
Haynes’ hand is so assured. He is in complete possession of the frame. He never rushes any scene but let’s the conversations unfold naturally. He has such a great relationship with Blanchett already from I’m Not There and now this but it is perhaps Mara who creates the perfect muse for Haynes. Not since David Fincher has anyone gotten her better, allowed such versatile of her formidable capablities.
Todd Haynes’ Carol is about many things. It’s about love and coming out. It’s about color and music. It’s about romance and pretty things. His films are always satisfying because they are packed with detail. They are memorable because he paints with pictures. Carol is one of his best.