Film Review: Carol (Film4, 2015)

Eva Isherwood-Wallace, Contributor

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Source: The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal

Directed by Todd Haynes Carol is a dreamlike film, by turns both beautiful and unsettling. Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes with Rooney Mara winning Best Actress, this outstanding film is set to perform highly during the Oscar season, and rightfully so. Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol begins with Therese (Mara) working a Christmas job in a New York department store when a sophisticated older woman (Cate Blanchett) comes in to purchase a Christmas present for her daughter. There is an immediate spark. The woman ‘accidentally’ leaves her gloves on the counter, so Therese returns them to her. In gratitude, she invites Therese to lunch and properly introduces herself. Her name is Carol, and Therese is in love. They continue to spend time together, with Therese becoming increasingly aware of the nature of their relationship. She assures her fiancé (Jake Lacy) that she and Carol share a platonic friendship, but the growing desire between them is impossible to ignore.

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Sparks fly on first encounter. Source: The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal

Any scene in which Mara and Blanchett appear together smoulders with anticipation, and both handle their roles masterfully. Mara perfectly captures Therese’s growth from an ingénue trapped in a loveless engagement, “flung out of space, to a confident young woman in control of her destiny. Blanchett is fully deserving of the current Oscar speculation surrounding her performance. She brings deeply human feeling to the coolly seductive role, and it is hard not to feel like Therese, at once intimidated and bewitched, when watching her onscreen.

We often see them separated by windows and doorways, a framing motif recurring throughout the film, shifting our gaze between Therese and Carol’s perspectives. Phyllis Nagy’s wonderfully crafted screenplay allows us a view of Carol’s home life and interactions with her beloved daughter, scenes missing from Highsmith’s novel. Physically constrained by the girdles, pencil skirts and permanently set hair of 1950s fashion, Carol’s elegant outward appearance masks the turmoil of her private life. A desire for privacy and dignity shapes much of the film. Carol and Therese find brief freedom in a road trip to Chicago, moving from seedy motel rooms to grand hotel suites, but the threat of discovery follows close behind. Paranoia, a hidden revolver, and fears of private investigators lend this domestic drama the tone of a thriller, reminiscent of Highsmith’s other famously adapted works The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train.

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Cate Blanchett as Carol. Source: The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal

Not removed from historical reality, the pervasive menace of consequence for Carol and Therese takes the form of legal repercussions. In the midst of a divorce, Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) asks for sole custody of their daughter, citing Carol’s “morality” as justification. Haynes movingly captures the anxiety of a lesbian relationship within an oppressive society. Even in private conversation, the word ‘lesbian’ is never used. Instead, there are uneasy references to “people like that”. The distance between Carol and Therese is characterised by long gazes and unspoken words, but this separation foregrounds any moments of private intimacy. When the passion of these charged looks is finally realised, it is all the more emotionally powerful for its prior repression. 

Often described as the first lesbian love story to have a happy ending, it leaves us with a definite sense of radical possibility: “What use am I… if I’m living against my own grain?”. Haynes has created an intense, romantic masterpiece, and it seems unthinkable that anyone could watch Carol without falling in love.

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