Film of the week: Carol

Love is the drug – forbidden, intoxicating – in Todd Haynes’s “knowing, heartfelt lesbian do-over” of the Old Hollywood impossible romance.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2015.

Kate Stables
Updated:

Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian love story Carol, originally a pseudonymously published million-selling pulp fiction, The Price of Salt, is the only non-crime novel she wrote. Yet Todd Haynes’s masterfully intelligent and meticulous screen adaptation links it smartly to her transgression-packed oeuvre from the get-go. For love is the crime here. Wealthy housewife Carol and callow shopgirl Therese’s slow-burning passion is an offence against society, for which they are hunted, and Carol punished.

Haynes’s continuing fascination with women trapped by social norms runs back as far as Safe’s life-allergic trophy housewife, through Far from Heaven’s doomed interracial love and Mildred Pierce’s class tensions. In Carol, which is to some extent a companion piece to Far from Heaven (2002), the master of postmodern melodrama and loving pastiche has created instead a swooning yet adroitly understated love story. A knowing, heartfelt lesbian do-over of the Old Hollywood template for impossible romance, Carol wears its yearning as stylishly as Cate Blanchett’s patrician Carol sports Sandy Powell’s gorgeously fitted 50s costumes, her popping red hats, scarves and curvy mouth hinting at banked fires.

Elegant restraint is the film’s watchword – it seduces its audience as nimbly as it does Rooney Mara’s awestruck Therese. We’re reeled in by the exquisite dance of gestures exchanged over a crackling martini-fuelled lunch or an elaborately innocent upstate New York visit: darting eye meets, questioning glances, shared smiles. This low-key courtship is daringly unhurried but deftly punctuated with tiny eroticised details that keep it bubbling. When it boils, the lovemaking is a decorous, retro flurry of bare backs and tumbled heads, the women’s intimacy kept private from us. In this enjoyably deliberate film, each shot and scene is carefully composed to pay homage to 50s cinema, yet infused with an emotional ambiguity which feels decidedly contemporary.

Carol (2015)

The other fine romance is that of Highsmith and Haynes, or perhaps it’s a love triangle once you’ve factored in Phyllis Nagy’s fine, spare script. Faithful to the book’s plotting, the film makes its own heady mood, distinct from the loucher, more sardonic feel of the novel. Nagy’s script nimbly opens up Carol’s home life and her confident carapace, and subtly swings around late on to make her the needier partner. Like Brokeback Mountain (2005), this is a recreation that deepens and even enriches its source material.

Eschewing Far from Heaven’s Sirkian Technicolor, Haynes’s early-50s is a more sober, post-war vision, with a subdued but intense colour palette, pitch-perfect New York settings and bustling, wet-street feel inspired by New York photographers such as Saul Leiter. Carter Burwell’s swelling Philip Glass-ish score and Ed Lachman’s cinematography frame the reserved lovers eloquently. Often gazing through internal windows or doorways to separate or distance characters, the camera is elaborately watchful. Capable of dissecting a stifling Wasp party in a single shot or dwelling lovingly on a curvy Packard, Haynes skewers as well as limns the 50s here. Men are the era’s moral enforcers – chiefly Carol’s controlling country-club-catch of an ex-husband Harge, who tears her away from Therese and into therapy for ‘deviancy’ to retain access to her child. Casting Kyle Chandler (effectively America’s ideal husband after TV’s Friday Night Lights) is a sly but inspired stroke. Watching him grab, slur and threaten is the women’s-picture equivalent of Henry Fonda’s shock villainy in Once upon a Time in the West (1968).

Carol (2015)

But the film is overwhelmingly sustained by the two excellent performances at its heart. Blanchett’s is the more studied portrayal – playfully predatory, with blond furs, deep voice and slanting eyes. Her Carol has a screen-siren allure, keeping both camera and lover rapt, even when nerves and misery shake her fine facade. Gazing despairingly at a phone during a forbidden call, she’s almost Garbo-esque. Her sleek opacity is beautifully complemented by Mara’s tender, enraptured timidity, gradually emboldened by love and suffering. Swinging between hope and fear as their risky liaison unfurls, she’s astonishingly good.

Fans of the exuberantly po-mo, subversive and self-referential Haynes will have to dig deep to find what they love in Carol, but it’s there. The cerebral, playfully cinephile archness of Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Far from Heaven has become a game of subtle signals. There’s a narrative bookending that blows a big kiss to Brief Encounter (1945), as do the couple’s damped-down emotional encounters. Sparks of Joan Crawford camp erupt in Carol’s growl – “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes” – and in her grandstanding defiance of an all-male custody meeting. ‘The Gaze’ is consciously manipulated through every cheekbone-grazing close-up.

But it’s all resolutely in the service of the film’s intoxicating love story, and Haynes pulls it off magnificently. Nowhere more so than in the last scene, where his leading ladies create a wordless but glorious finale that outdoes even Highsmith’s high note.

 

In the December 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

Todd Haynes: The S&S Interview

From his Jean Genet-inspired feature debut Poison in 1991 to his new Patricia Highsmith adaptation, the lesbian love story Carol, Todd Haynes has embraced stories that explore the complexity of sexual and identity politics. Here he explains what it feels like to become part of the cinematic canon, why naturalism in film is an artificial construct, what spanking means in his movies and why capitalism has won. Interview by Ryan Gilbey.

+ Patricia Highsmith: the poet of appreciation

From the outset, the detached, clinical insights offered in Patricia Highsmith’s unsettling novels have proved attractive to filmmakers. By Philip Kemp.

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