Based on the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt, Carol is the sixth film in director, Todd Haynes’ illustrious career. Unlike most of Haynes’ other work, this particular film is written by Phyllis Nagy, known mostly for her theater work and writing/directing the 2005 HBO film, Mrs. Harris. Carol is about a romance that blossoms between a young department store clerk/aspiring photographer, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and a wealthy, married woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). It explores the highs and lows that they experience as their lives intertwine in an era when homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder.
Todd Haynes is a phenomenal filmmaker, and I find my reactions to his films to be quite fascinating. I’m never immediately impressed with his work, but they grow on me over time without exception and I come to love all of his work. It’s why I took a little extra time to write this review about his latest film, Carol, which I started writing several days after seeing the film. And it should really be of no surprise that Carol is an astounding piece of cinema that is rich in emotion and depth. It easily stands out among the best films of 2015.
At the center of the film are two stellar performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Both deliver believable, natural, yet powerful performances that are full of nuance and passion. The film is ultimately a love story at it’s heart and so much of a romance relies on the leads to be damn near perfect and in Carol’s case, it’s practically flawless. They captivate and keep you invested in their story for the two hour running time with ease. You share their highs and lows almost as if you are their experiencing every bit of joy and sadness that they experience. They also have wonderful chemistry together. And the two also benefit from a strong supporting cast. Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy and Corey Michael Smith take up the fairly small cast, and they all do a great job as well.
Carol is a film that can be best described as quiet or subdued. It’s the kind of film where the stakes are purely intimate and relies on the smaller, subtle details in the performances and the filmmaking to make it work. It’s tough to pull off, but Haynes is a master at it, and he accomplishes it to great effect here. So much in the film can be said with just one character glancing at another or just the way a specific shot is composed. Despite the low-key nature of the film, it is continuously engaging and riveting. Each frame of the film is gorgeously crafted. Everything from the costumes to the sets create a startlingly realistic portrayal of the 1950s, as opposed to the more idealized version we often see in most media. This also reflects on the storytelling as well. All the characters feel well-rounded and their portrayal never resorts to being cartoonish or over-the-top. Kyle Chandler is a great example of this, he plays Carol’s husband, Harge, and he is the closest to what the film has to an antagonist in his insistence in gaining custody of their daughter during their divorce. It’s a character we’ve seen before, but what Carol does differently is that his character feels like a real person. You understand his frustration and his wish to make the marriage work despite being doomed to fail, Chandler himself provides plenty of nuance to the character that would have been a boring villain in any lesser film.
If there’s any downside one could conjure up, it might simply be that the film isn’t necessarily full of surprises. It’s kind of inevitable considering the book was written 63 years ago. However, Carol is not the kind of film you watch because you want to experience an unpredictable plotline. The pleasures of the film come out of it’s themes of being true to oneself, sexual awakening and the toxicity of the 1950s attitude toward homosexuality. It all feeds into a slow burn style of storytelling where most of the big emotional gut punches come toward the final act. I even found the payoff to be quite satisfying and much more hopeful than I tend to see in LGBT-themed films made today.
Carol is an elegant, understated and subtle, yet emotionally effective piece of filmmaking. The craftsmanship at work here is full of rich details, beautiful cinematography (courtesy of Edward Lachman), a lush score from Carter Burwell, and beautiful production and costume design (from Judy Becker and Sandy Powell, respectively). With two powerhouse performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Carol offers some of Todd Haynes’ most emotionally satisfying work to date. The storytelling is smart and always treats it’s audience like adults. It’s an empathetic and thoroughly relevant film that resonates despite its aging source material. It certainly won’t work for everyone, but for anyone with an appreciation of Todd Haynes’ sheer filmmaking prowess will find a lot to love about Carol. 90 / 100