As one of the most nominated films of the year Carol sinks only your heart, and exceeds expectations. Set in early 1950s Manhattan – a tough climate for sexual deviancy and independent women – Todd Haynes’ latest picture of homosexuality is his most refined and subtly powerful. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, which has become a feminist and lesbian classic since its first publication in 1952, the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy had been campaigning for this cinematic adaption for the last 20 years. Awash in green and red tones reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, compounded by the fantastic costumes designed by Sandy Powell, the film is utterly compelling and earnest in its period setting, following its own oscillating path of gentility, heartbreak and tragedy.
Therese (Rooney Mara) is a young woman unsure of the world and what she wants from it when the world-weary Carol (Cate Blanchett) glides into her life. In a film latent with the capitalist ethos of desire, it is fitting that the chance encounter between the two women occurs in a department store. Carol’s forgotten gloves provide the excuse for further contact after the initial spark shared whilst discussing dolls and toy railways. The latter is symbolic of the repressive and containing society that attempts to direct their impulses and, as traditionally a boy’s toy, hints toward their eventual deviancy from the accepted track.
The story is recounted in flashback. Edward Lachman’s incredible Super 16 cinematography captures the ambiguous hue of memory; a dreary New York viewed through a misted cab window exemplifies the graininess that digital lacks. Therese’s reverie recounts the make and break of the pair, which comes full circle to the interrupted conversation that opens the film. Indebted to Brief Encounter (1945), this narrative device is highly effective in framing the rise and fall of the relationship before taking us back to the climactic reunion. As the camera rests on the other shoulder this time, our sympathies have been shifted subtly to rest with Carol.
The film’s success is down to its delicacy – Haynes’ is confident in allowing the sublime performances and evocative visuals to speak for themselves. It is a deeply unhappy film, but of the irresistible kind as scenes constantly swing like a pendulum between hope and harsh reality. In the current era of tolerance and assimilation for homosexual relationships, Carol is a sensitive representation of the confused and painful predicament that an unsympathetic society predicates. Haynes operates at a safe distance from any clichéd portrayals of lesbianism, most evident in the intimate love scene which, in its honest beauty, is testament to the relationship between the actresses and crew.
Their sojourn takes the film briefly into the realms of a road movie. Elegant camera positioning captures their growth within the cabin, making use of reflections and the smallest of gestures – as Carol covers the sleeping Therese – which speaks volumes. Yet the necessity for their journey and the ambiguous space of the motels to allow their relationship to flower forewarns us of how their love was ‘evil’ enough to trigger a moral injunction over Carol’s child. The film is not only perceptive in its understanding of same sex relationships, but also effortlessly includes a powerful commentary on patriarchy, as the spaces reserved for women in the film are largely unoccupied by men and clearly segregated – despite Therese’s promise and venture into press photography, we only see her marginalised as a note taker whilst men, like a pack of dogs, growl over the decisions.
Carol has rightly been showered with nominations and is an incredibly accomplished and well-rounded piece. Carter Burtwell’s score is perfect in reflecting the melancholic tone of the film and along with the superb pacing, ensures that the film is absolutely absorbing and lingers long in your memory.