Like its titular character, there is a particular allure that’s possessed by Todd Haynes’ Carol. Set during Christmas time in the 1950s, there is a beauty possessed within its atmosphere that envelops and draws you into the story – which begins with a subtle sense of mystery as we’re introduced to the lead characters and left questioning the nature and history of their relationship (a mystery that the film operates to solve with its flashback-constructed storyline). And while the narrative on the whole is ultimately very straightforward and uncomplicated, the weight is provided by some tremendous performances, incredible style, and a magnificent score.
Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name (alternatively known as The Price of Salt), the story really begins with a long gaze shared in a department store at the start of the holiday season. Therese (Rooney Mara), a young aspiring photographer working as a sales clerk, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a mother in the process of leaving her husband, share stares while the latter surveys a toy train as a potential gift for her daughter. They spark while speaking across the counter about the purchase, and after Carol forgets her gloves and Therese sends them back by mail, they find themselves happily drawn back together.
Of course, this is not a growing love without conflict – even beyond the conservative culture of the 1950s. The most important thing in Carol’s life is her daughter, Rindy (twins Sadie and Kk Heim), and this is something that her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), knows that he can exploit in their separation. He is still very much in love with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and being threatened by the developing relationship between Carol and Therese, he will do whatever it takes to bring her back to him.
The production design is gorgeous, pulling you into the period setting and capturing the unique elegance of the era, but it’s the direction of Todd Haynes and photography of Edward Lachman that makes Carol a particularly wonderful piece of art. Shot on Super 16mm, the frame is wide and beautiful and overflowing with stunning color. Against the whites and the greys of New York winter, vibrant reds, soft blues, and sharp yellows magnificently burst on the screen, and not only create a memorable aesthetic but contribute to the mise en scene in representation of emotions and individuals.
With its brilliant score from composer Carter Burwell, Carol is even gorgeous on the auditory front. Music has played a significant role in many of Todd Haynes’ films – from Velvet Goldmine to I’m Not There - and while it’s not exactly central to the plot of his newest movie, Burwell’s arrangements notably add to the emotionality of every scene. In line with the rest of the feature, the key is subtlety and accent, and it enhances each moment.
Watching Carol, one can’t help but notice that everyone who forms a relationship with the eponymous character develops a deep emotional connection with her, and it really only makes you further appreciate the casting of Cate Blanchett – who simply has the incredible screen presence that helps you understand everyone’s perspective. The entire cast is fantastic, from Rooney Mara fostering Therese’s blossoming growth and independence, to Kyle Chandler as the passionate and desperate Harge, but it’s Blanchett who really once again wows with another powerful and emotional turn – torn in several directions by the story and forced to make wrenching choices. Infusing Carol with mystery, passion, and a certain degree of pain, she simply delivers another masterful performance.
The scale of Carol’s story is compact, and audiences shouldn’t go in expecting any kind of big twists and turns from the narrative. While this is a particular drawback, it is still a movie made compelling by emotional, complex performances and wonderful style.