Bittersweet and full of longing, Todd Haynes’ Carol is a study in desire: desire for status, desire to be important and, of course, desire of a more carnal nature. It’s all long looks and admiring glaces shared by Carol Aire (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Roony Mara) from across space, through windows and door frames, always from a distance. Haynes’ understanding of space serves him well as it is the distance that builds the chemistry between the two leads as much as their proximity.
Carol is a painstaking crafted film, with the attention to detail applied to everything from the carefully styled hair, makeup and clothes to the decor right down to the detailing of the floorboards. It’s this attention to details that makes the film shine. Like all of Haynes’ work, it owes a great deal to Douglas Sirk and his melodramatic “women’s films” of the 1950s. However, Haynes’ approach is more removed and more clinical, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Where Sirk pulls at your heart strings, Haynes asks you to take a step back and evaluate what he’s showing you. This isn’t to say there is no emotional appeal to Carol–it just doesn’t come from the direction. Instead, Haynes has created a perfect microcosm of the 1950s, a vibrant framework on which his actresses can let loose.
Both Blanchett and Mara are stunning. Carol is the perfectly designed ’50s housewife, who wants so badly to be the perfect mother to her young daughter, but is also unwilling to give up her own identity to do so. Blanchett imbues her performance with strength and anger and sadness at how the world addresses her relationships with other women, but there is never defeat in her eyes. Mara offers her best performance to date, giving us a Therese that is curious and uncertain, but also smart and strong enough to follow the path that her attractions lead her to.
Carol is both a period piece and a romance. It explores the landscape that existed in 1950s America for lesbians and, to a lesser extent, all women, but it also gives us the story of two people who find one another. There are no cliches or titillating shots, as Haynes has treated every detail with the utmost respect. He finds the erotic tension in stillness and distance, creating something more true and sensual than could be done with more explicit content. And that’s what makes Carol sing. No bells and whistles. No shocking twists. Just simple, clean film making that lets its two leads make the most of their onscreen chemistry with nothing more than a simple look that says everything.