Opening in limited release tomorrow in just 4 theaters, Carol is receiving glowing reaction from East and West Coast critics. With 25 reviews now collected on Metacritic, over half are perfect scores of 100 and only one is lower than 80.) As so often happens, a lavishly conceived film has inspired equally rich analysis.
Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan:
“Carol” universalizes from the particular, and it does so with exceptional skill and style. This is a love story between two women set at a time and place when that relationship was beyond taboo, but as its bravura filmmaking unfolds, those specifics fade and what remains are the feelings and emotions that all the best movie love stories create. And make no mistake, “Carol” belongs in that group…
Haynes understands that swooningly beautiful traditional technique bolstered by thrilling performances creates the greatest impact. He has made a serious melodrama about the geometry of desire, a dreamy example of heightened reality that fully engages emotions despite the exact calculations with which it’s been made…
It would be difficult to exaggerate how completely inside their respective roles Blanchett and Mara are or how beautifully they play off each other with their combination of elegance and tentativeness. Because Carol is the more experienced character, Blanchett’s role has somewhat greater complexity, but the wordless looks of palpable yearning they exchange are superbly done on both sides…
With Cincinnati standing in for early 1950s New York, and production designer Judy Becker, set decorator Heather Loefffler and top costume designer Sandy Powell doing altogether remarkable work, “Carol’s” lush but controlled visual look is completely intoxicating. This is filmmaking done by masters, an experience to savor.
The New York Times, A.O. Scott:
Mutual attraction may be central to our notion of love, but it is a curiously rare occurrence in art, which tends to split desire into subject and object. Poetry traces a vector from lover to beloved. (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) In painting and sculpture, the eye of the beholder lingers on the face and body of the beheld. Students of film are schooled in the erotic power of the gaze, and readers of romance fiction know the seductions of the first-person narrative and the free indirect style, which concentrate lust and longing within a single consciousness.
In bringing this book to the screen in his gorgeous new movie “Carol,” Todd Haynes has, as filmmakers will, changed a few details, characters and plot points. (Therese is now an aspiring photographer, though still temporarily employed at the doll counter of a department store.) But Mr. Haynes and the screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, have also done something more radical. In Highsmith’s prose, desire is a one-way street. For Mr. Haynes, it’s a two-way mirror. At once ardent and analytical, cerebral and swooning, “Carol” is a study in human magnetism, in the physics and optics of eros. With sparse dialogue and restrained drama, the film is a symphony of angles and glances, of colors and shadows. It gives emotional and philosophical weight to what might be a perfectly banal question: What do these women see each in each other?
…Carol lights up Therese’s world with her elegance and self-possession, her dazzling and mysterious allure. But Therese has mysteries of her own. Carol (in a line taken directly from the book) likens her to an alien, a creature “flung from space,” and Ms. Mara’s face has a spooky, otherworldly quality… It’s hard to tell whether her quiet manner bespeaks timidity or terrifying self-possession…
“Carol,” like virtually every other movie Mr. Haynes has directed, is a period film, almost fetishistically precise in its recreation of the look and sound of the past. Like other historical fiction, it measures the distance between then and now. In 1952, the candid and sympathetic depiction of gay life was shocking; now it is commonplace. “Carol” might have been content to be an archaeology of the closet, or a pitying backward glance at the mores of a less enlightened time.
But it is much more than that. Mr. Haynes is a historian of feelings, of the unspoken and invisible traces of the libido. In one scene, Carol helps Therese apply perfume, instructing her to spray it only on her pulse points, where the heat and movement of her blood will activate the scent. The images in “Carol” are cool and elusive, but they also pulsate with life.
Variety, Justin Chang:
As a rare prestige picture centered around a homosexual relationship set during a much less tolerant era, “Carol” stands to generate perhaps an even warmer audience embrace than “Brokeback Mountain” did 10 years earlier, hopefully absent much of the snickering embarrassment that soured the otherwise widespread acclaim for Ang Lee’s classic. The obvious differences between the two films go beyond the mere fact that “Carol” centers around two women in an urbane ’50s New York setting; unlike “Brokeback,” Haynes’ film is not framed as tragedy. (To preserve the purity of the experience, read no further.) Remaining largely faithful to Highsmith’s ending, which thrilled and shocked readers at the time with its suggestion that forbidden desires need not be forever sublimated to the status quo, “Carol” ends on a triumphant note of emotional clarity that, for all its frozen-in-time period restraint, speaks stirringly and unmistakably to the present moment. It’s a thoroughly modern movie skillfully disguised, at least up to a point, as a Production Code-era artifact…
The moment when Therese first sets eyes on this perfectly coiffed creature is a classic, unadorned love-at-first-sight moment, and after their brief transaction, Carol absent-mindedly leaves her gloves on the counter, giving Therese the excuse she needs to secure a second meeting. The almost subterranean delicacy of Haynes’ direction is on full display when the two women have lunch at a nearby restaurant, in a sequence where Blanchett’s soft, husky voice and Mara’s cool yet vulnerable one seem to faintly caress each other, their every anxious pause and upward/downward glance larded with unspoken desire. One of the film’s more remarkable achievements is that, despite their obvious differences in class and background, Therese and Carol seem to ease themselves (and the audience) so quickly and naturally into a bond that they have no interest in defining, or even really discussing — a choice that works not only for an era when their love dared not speak its name, but also for Haynes’ faith in the power of the medium to achieve an eloquence beyond words…
Mara is as no less mesmerizing here than she was in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (in which she played a woman far less reserved about her nontraditional sexual appetites), and she seems born to the role of someone who seems at once knowing and naive, guarded yet unafraid to pursue what she really wants in life. Some of the film’s most moving moments find Mara simply peering out at the great nocturnal expanse of Manhattan — nicely played by Cincinnati locations, and shot, at times, in an almost Wong Kar-wai-esque neon blur — while Carter Burwell’s haunting score, with its two-step progressions and occasional repetitions, seems an almost perfect distillation of her longing.
Yet “Carol” ultimately belongs to Blanchett, and rightly so. Not for nothing did the filmmakers opt to go with the other title under which “The Price of Salt” is sometimes published; whereas the novel was told from Therese’s point of view, the film offers a more balanced dual perspective, allowing us an unfiltered and hugely sympathetic glimpse into Carol’s world of smothering decorum and forced family cheer. As searing as Blanchett was in her Oscar-winning turn in “Blue Jasmine,” she arguably achieves something even deeper here by acting in a much quieter, more underplayed register. Looking a vision in Sandy Powell’s costumes (the color red is wielded with particular expertise), Blanchett fully inhabits the role of a woman who turns out to be much tougher and wiser than those luxurious outer garments would suggest. As a study in the way beautiful surfaces can simultaneously conceal and expose deeper meanings, the actress’s performance represents an all-too-fitting centerpiece for this magnificently realized movie.
The New Yorker, Anthony Lane:
Who is the heroine of Todd Haynes’s “Carol”? There are two candidates. One is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a wife and mother whom we first espy in a mink coat, and who never really sheds that touch of caressable luxury. The second is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who is only just a woman; in the 1952 novel from which the film derives, Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” Therese—pronounced the French way, bien sûr—is nineteen. Mara’s poise may add a few years, but, nevertheless, a précis might suggest a disturbing tale of maturity preying on youth. Yet that is not what emanates from “Carol.” It feels more like a meeting, or a conflagration, of equals. “Take me to bed,” one says to the other, and the line is both a yielding and a command.
The time is the nineteen-fifties, perhaps the last epoch when, as a moviegoer, you could still believe that some enchanted evening you would see a stranger across a crowded room, and somehow know. The sighting takes place some disenchanted winter day, in Frankenberg’s, a department store in Manhattan, when Therese, a temporary salesgirl in a Santa hat, serves Carol at the peak of the Christmas rush. Carol leaves her gloves on the counter—a detail not found in Highsmith but cleverly stitched on by Haynes and his excellent screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy, who make us wonder, at once, whether Carol is being cunning or forgetful. Either way, she gets results. Therese makes contact; Carol invites her out to lunch, and then to the Aird family home, in New Jersey. Before we know it—almost before they know it—the two women embark on a road trip. Carol’s smooth gray Packard glides along like a boat, as if roads were rivers, and the open country offers space, as New York could not, for the free play of forbidden love. It’s possible that Carol and Therese might pause at an intersection to let another car, bearing Humbert and Lolita, sweep past.
The marriage of true minds, of course, demands impediment. Why should Haynes return to the patch of history that he visited in “Far from Heaven” (2002)? Because the period guarantees not only high-grade romantic trappings but also the basic thwarting without which romance cannot flower into drama. If Haynes had updated “The Price of Salt” to the present, our response would have been: big deal. Trade your straight marriage for a same-sex relationship, these days, and you will be hailed for your emotional honesty, whereas Highsmith, steeped in crime fiction, needed the creak of danger and the hiss of social disdain. The film is at its best when it honors that craving for trouble—when Therese, idly picking through Carol’s suitcase and fingering the fabric of the clothes inside, discovers a gun. (Carol fears being trailed.) For an instant, the lovers might be thieves, fleeing a heist or a suspicious death.
The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy:
Highsmith’s second novel (after Strangers on a Train), published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, was something of a sensation in gay and lesbian literary circles due to its “happy” — or at least open — ending in an era when transgressive sexual relationships were normally punished as the story concluded…
The Big Scene is adroitly and tastefully done, with a careful measure of nudity for the two stars and stopping short of anything really down and dirty. But the mood quickly changes as the long arm of the law has pursued the women so as to threaten Carol with cruel and unusual punishment for her transgression.
Blanchett makes an indelible impression as a woman who, through breeding, intense personal cultivation and social expectations, has brilliantly mastered the skill of navigating through life, but to ultimately disastrous effect on her husband, child and her own satisfaction. It has all, of course, been a charade, and what is impressive is that Carol has the strength to even try to change course after so many years.
The roughly half-as-old Therese is unformed clay, which makes her largely a reactive character most of the way. But Mara really comes into her own in the story’s latter stages as, without overt melodrama, Therese realizes what she wants. Thanks largely to how Mara shapes her characterization in the home stretch, the final, dialogue-free scene is a knockout.
Rolling Stone, Peter Travers:
Camera virtuoso Edward Lachman finds visual poetry in the hothouse eroticism that envelops Carol and Therese, an amateur photographer who keeps framing Carol in her lens. Blanchett, a dream walking in Sandy Powell’s frocks, delivers a master class in acting. And Mara is flawless, revealing Therese’s sexual confusion as she moves away from boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) and toward a seductive unknown. When the two women drive cross-country, lost in each other, Carol’s husband, Harge (a fiercely fine Kyle Chandler), shows his resentment by suing for custody of their daughter.
Haynes’ commitment to outcasts, then and now, makes Carol a romantic spellbinder that cuts deep. It’s one of the year’s very best films. Blanchett and Mara should have Oscar calling for giving heroic dimensions to characters who step out of the shadows and into a harsh world that their courage just might change. I wanted to cheer.
New York Daily News, Stephen Whitty:
“Carol” is a lesbian romance where nobody says the word “lesbian.” Partly that’s because the movie is set in the 1950s. Carol is so deeply in the closet she’s practically hiding behind her furs. Therese is still naive enough not to have given her own sexuality a name.
But mostly the word “lesbian” doesn’t come up because this isn’t just a lesbian story. It’s a human one…
Those difficulties — and the need for secrets and lies — are ones that are specific to being gay, especially in the ’50s. They underline the discrimination that gay people felt, and can still feel. They make this movie particular, and heartfelt.
But these women also struggle with the same problems as most new couples. What’s the commitment here? Where are the boundaries? Who’s the lover — and who’s the beloved?
All these issues have fascinated director Todd Haynes for years, most recently in his 2002 film, “Far From Heaven,” and his HBO adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.” Then as now, Haynes is a master for period pieces — the movie nicely re-creates Eisenhower-era New York — and his skill with actresses.
Blanchett is perfect as Carol, as cool and tightly controlled as ever — until she no longer can be. And there’s something impish yet sweetly vulnerable about Mara, who’s both attracted to this older woman yet initially unable to understand why.
…it’s really a movie about love at first sight, about the dizzying early days of a relationship, about a passion so strong it can’t be described, or denied. And that’s something everyone can identify with.