Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler
During 1950s New York, a humble department store worker (Mara) meets Carol (Blanchett), an upper class woman unable to live the life she wants due to her controlling ex-husband (Chandler). The two women soon form a close bond and cannot control their mutual attraction for one another, but Carol’s complicated life means that it may be a relationship that will never be allowed to happen.
Doomed love is surely one of the most common subjects to feature in the history of cinema, but then they do say that ultimately all films are actually about a small number of various types of story. Well, it doesn’t matter how tried and tested a core narrative theme may be, it is how that said narrative presents that said theme that is most important. Well, despite being an apparent early awards darling, Carol is more than just Oscar bait and is a deeply involving and engaging story of a doomed love affair that works exceptionally well on both an emotional and aesthetic level.
Todd Haynes is a skilful filmmaker, and he and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy present the narrative with a deliberately measured pace. Carol does admittedly teste the patience of the viewer at first, but this patience is amply rewarded, and the extent of this reward is down to the intentionally measured initial pace of the narrative. If everything were signposted and obvious from the start then Carol would be a forgettable film, but it is the increasing levels of both tension and foreboding that make it increasingly engaging as it develops.
Carol is a film with intentionally minimalist character development; all we ever learn about both Carol and Therese is the things that directly affect their relationship, and therefore the narrative. Some may find this alienating and it hard to care for the individual characters, but it is the love they have for each other that it is the lynchpin of the narrative, and therefore anything that has a direct effect on that is by far the most important thing to include into a film which is already two hours long.
There are plenty of intriguing hints and references to provide potential explanations as to why Carol is the she is and why she is in the situation she is. This provides more emotional engagement than if we were told her entire life story from the start, this measured approach means that as their love affair develops there is an impending sense of unpredictability as to what exactly is going to happen.
Therese is very much a character that is a closed book, though some might argue this makes it hard it engage with her, I would argue that it makes her more engaging as while her reserved and timid demeanour is not only an interesting opposite to the seemingly extroverted Carol, it means we get to know her as Carol does. Though this often provides more questions than answers as to why she is the way she is, it makes for more engaging viewing than if we were also simply told her life story from the off by some lazy voiceover.
Rooney Mara is exceptional as Therese, delivering a wonderfully understated performance. She delivers with mere facial expressions so many emotions as well as providing tantalising questions as to what is going on in her mind and why. It of course goes without saying that Cate Blanchett is an incredible actress, and she delivers an exceptional turn as Carol, perfectly capturing the internal torture beneath the extroverted exterior that Carol deploys.
Excellent support is also provided by Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband Harge, but the whole subplot involving their marriage and their fight for the custody of their daughter gets more focus than it really needs to, making the film a good twenty minutes longer than it needs to be. These scenes do also add a sense of the forbidden to Carol and Therese’s relationship considering the decade they live in, but this is not developed enough to be particularly effective and so does not ultimately add much. The ending too, though well made, does feel slightly out of tone with the rest of the overall narrative tone and its key themes.
Aesthetically Carol is spot on; from the costumes to the set design to the cinematography, it is a film that captures its setting of time and place perfectly. Though it may not go down in history as a ‘Christmas Film’, the festive setting and the natural atmosphere of feelings of loneliness and melancholy the festive season brings are also used very effectively. These feelings are also captured perfectly by Carter Burwell’s subtle, but deeply intimate and melancholic score. Haynes himself intentionally films many scenes of characters through windows, only enhancing the feeling of trapped isolation that the characters feel. Carol may feature a romance between two women, but the themes at the heart of its narrative are universal for all genders and sexuality to provide a film that is deeply engaging and emotionally rewarding.
One of 2015’s most unforgettable love stories; Carol combines mood and setting perfectly to create a visually stunning, wonderfully acted and deeply engaging depiction of a very universal and relatable narrative theme; a doomed love between two very different individuals.