There's something about the way that Todd Haynes lights his two leading ladies, Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara, in "Carol." They look like a pair of Golden Age Hollywood stars, even though "Carol," unlike some of Haynes' previous work, doesn't especially resemble a film of that era. I spent a good amount of time in the early scenes, trying to decide whether Mara looked more like Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood. It was surely a deliberate choice, contextualizing the film's narrative in familiar, nostalgic cinematic terms. After all, Patricia Highsmith's source novel, "The Price of Salt," was written in 1952. Why shouldn't it's tale of a forbidden love between two women be told through 1950s screen iconography?
Mara plays Therese Belivet, a clerk at a Manhattan department store, who one day spies well-to-do housewife Carol (Blanchette) out Christmas shopping, and is immediately smitten. After selling Carol a train set, Therese visits her home to return a pair of gloves, and finds her feelings are reciprocated. The two become involved, as discreetly as possible. However, Carol is in the middle of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and Therese's boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) is making overtures about marriage. Inevitably, as Carol and Therese's relationship becomes more serious, they find it more and more difficult to keep up appearances. Carol is in an especially precarious position, and risks losing her social standing and her relationship with her young daughter.
In the reaction pieces I've seen online, those who have had difficulty connecting with "Carol" tend to call the film cold and remote. They appreciate its technical achievements and visual artistry, but simply do not find the central relationship between Carol and Therese compelling. I can see why, because so much of the film seems so subdued, with the two leads careful to maintain their distance in a repressive, unfriendly world. Two women together was so unthinkable in the 1950s that most of the characters do their best to talk around the subject when confronted with it. Even Carol and Therese can't seem to bring themselves to acknowledge their love directly. A great deal of the film concerns itself with their yearning, loneliness, and difficulty in accepting what they want. The pacing is measured, the tone is contemplative, and the mood is melancholy, as reflected by the excellent Carter Burwell score. A great deal of the romance is played out in a series of silent, lingering looks. Therese watches Carol through windows and through the lens of her camera, until she can summon up the nerve to do more than just look.
I expected Cate Blanchette to be excellent here, and she is of course. Onscreen she's luminous, poised, and charismatic. Even when the façade of perfection slips and Carol's desperation shows, she's still never anything less than lovely. However, this movie is a showcase for Rooney Mara's talents. Therese is an amateur photographer, and much of her arc has to do with her development as an artist. We see Carol's influence on her taste and style, and especially on her eye. What begins as a passive gaze becomes more and more active, mirroring Therese's role in the relationship. It's such a subtle, delicate performance, all about the smallest shifts in attitudes, little moments adding up to monumental changes. I can't wait to see where Mara's career goes after this.
I confess that I want to like "Carol" more than I actually do. I have a tremendous amount of affection for the characters, for the Phyllis Nagy script, for the Christmastime in New York visuals, and especially for that score. However, I don't think I appreciate the filmmaking on nearly the same level as the viewers who seem to be really enraptured with the film. "Carol" strikes me as a small, exquisitely made melodrama that will be best enjoyed by a particular audience in the right mood for it, and I don't think I quite match that description - or ever will. Todd Haynes' work requires more commitment than I think his fans realize, though it's very comforting to see that he still has a loyal audience.
It's been a banner year for GLBT film, and it's only right that Haynes be at the forefront once more.