Originally published on This is Film as ‘Review: Carol (2016) – A Personal Insight’
The music swells, the camera pans slowly in. The end is near. You definitely know this, it’s not the first time you’ve seen the film. But that doesn’t change how it feels. You can feel it in your chest. It’s that ache, that knowledge that the dream is nearly over. It makes your eyes sting with tears. It lodges itself deep, feeling like the final moments before a sleep induced fantasy dissolves. You’re begging for it not to be over, for the lights to not come up, to not have to return to reality. You savour the last moments, drinking them in with your eyes, hoping to capture everything in your heart to remember it by until the next time you watch it. You know that you’ll never be successful. You’ll never be able to fully get to the bottom of what makes each viewing of this film such a powerful experience, be able to give full weight to the enormity of your love and admiration for it. Where do you start, and where do you end, when a film is such a perfectly constructed and personal experience from top to bottom, so much so you’re convinced you dreamed it? The right words, that ephemeral combination to describe what’s on screen just go, will always be slightly out of reach, something you’ll frustratingly never be able to achieve.
Todd Haynes’s Carol is about things that cannot be described. Sure, society forbids it. There’s a lingering fear in every frame, the presence of facades and restraint, the feeling of a set of eyes upon you. Behind closed doors is where the truth comes out. But language is also inadequate to describe it, trapping you from full expression. What to do when the words that exist, the subcultures and classifications to fit oneself into, cannot accurately describe what is happening, what one feels and thinks, indeed feels alienated from all parts of society?
Life changes irrevocably the moment that one meets another such alien.
In 1950s New York, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) exists on the fringes. Even in a crowded room or a car bustling with youthful energy, she feels alone. Cinematographer Ed Lachman fills the frame with her surroundings, big, bustling, and nearly swallowing her whole with their chaos. She works at a ho-hum department store, a place filled with a strict sense of rules, and a feeling of her life maybe becoming as dull, predictable, and uniform as the Santa hat she is made to wear in her job. She even feels distant from her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who is constantly trying to get her to marry him, purely because…well, that’s just how life is meant to go, right? But Therese feels anxious, nothing feels right, nothing fascinates her, and she doesn’t know why. Only her camera, her other set of eyes that shield and allow her to see the world differently, fascinates her. Her boyfriend’s affections make her uncomfortable, she doesn’t want to marry him. She doesn’t want to be dependent on a man, marking time until she gets married and ‘settles down’. She wants to be a photographer, except her disconnection from those around her is so strong that taking photos of them feels like an invasion of privacy. She can’t understand them, so she can’t take photos of them. The actions of everyone else in the world make absolutely no sense to her.
But then, on just another day stuck behind the doll counter at the department store, it all changes. She glimpses another like her, another person who feels so at odds with the world, across a room. The moment is so understated that its simplicity is disarming, its silence speaks volumes about its impact. There is no dialogue, no music. Most Hollywood romances after all have lead audiences to believe that love is of grand gestures, of perfectly contrivances and swelling violins, after all. But here, the chaos of Therese’s surroundings melts away for a second to pause, and you know this is big. They lock eyes, and you can feel something inside Therese slot into place and the ground shift. She’s given this more pause than anything else, considered and made eye contact with it. This other woman may be different and indeed from another world far removed from Therese’s own – in a fur coat and wearing coral coloured nail polish and a hat to match and sporting a confident, commanding voice, she’s a picture of grown-up sophistication, far above Therese in both age and class and experience – but Therese can see right through that. This mysterious woman has indeed just become better at hiding the fact she feels alone. Therese can see through it. For the first time, she understands someone. And for the mysterious woman, who we soon find out is named Carol (Cate Blanchett), we know that she does too.
In the source novel The Price of Salt (republished as Carolin 1990), Patricia Highsmith lets the question of mutuality in the balance until the inevitable, but nonetheless suspense-filled (it is written by the mind behind The Talented Mr Ripley, after all) moment of emotional bank-breaking. Carol remains an object of fantasy through the perspective being firmly kept with Therese. She’s swathed in furs and always just out of reach to Therese, an imagined object of obsession. When the pair seem to be getting closer, there are even moments of outright meanness from Carol to Therese. The older woman is, in a contradictory manner, trying to save Therese from a life of unhappiness by pushing her away, despite both continuing to advance. In the novel, it’s less about the story of the pair falling in love than it is about Therese coming of age and finding herself through a life-changing experience.
That doesn’t mean that Haynes and his screenwriter Phyllis Nagy make Carol and Therese’s relationship develop without complexity or conflict. Their burgeoning relationship is charted with meetings that the conceit of which would be familiar to anyone who has ever been pursing an as yet unrequited infatuation. Their circling of each other, pulled closer and closer together gradually as they fall deeper in love, feels like a gravitational pull, as natural and accidental as their meeting. They meet for lunch in an upmarket restaurant. They steal glances at each other, calculating the other one. Carol watches Therese, asks her if she lives alone and if she wants to marry Richard. She tells Therese that she’s getting divorced, and Therese apologises. With a rock-steady, unaffected look, she tells Therese not to be. Their early relationship finds suspense in these glances, the fact that every movement is a precise, calculated inquisition into the other one and their feelings.
In another scene, as a character watches Sunset Boulevard, he comments that he’s “charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they truly feel”. It is difficult, after all. Society forbids what they both desire, and both are anxious, damaged, and unsure of what they’re doing, unable to describe exactly what is happening and what they feel. Therese sees two New York lesbians in a record shop, dressed in well-tailored pants suits, and looks ambivalent. She asks Richard if he’s ever been in love with a boy, completely unaware of the ramifications of what she’s saying. When he responds in horror that no, of course he hasn’t been, he’s not one ofthose people, she rebuts him. “I don’t mean like that,” she says “Just two people that fall in love with each other out of the blue, say a boy and a boy or something.”
It is indeed an impossible task to summarise the essence of what makes Carol such a fantastic, emotional, spellbinding experience. From an objective perspective, evaluating the craft behind the film, it is flawless. Each element is impossibly well executed, so fascinatingly layered that it begs for thousands and thousands of words of discussion in order to give the skill of the work due credit. Sandy Powell’s costumes and Judy Becker’s sets orient Carol and Therese in the period, a time on the precipice of postwar anxiety and the dawning excitement of the 1950s. Their differences and their anxieties are manifested in the settings – Becker’s department store is the type of lurid, dirty green that makes one feel ill; and Therese’s apartment is sparse, with few possessions.
Powell’s costumes subtly chart Therese’s metamorphosis – she starts the film by wearing a plaid tam o’ shanter that is eventually divested for a black beret along with her girlish coat for more sophisticated clothes. By the time she ends the film wearing a smart jacket and skirt set, undoubtedly influenced by Carol, but nevertheless the first hints of her identity as an adult, the change doesn’t feel abrupt. Ed Lachman’s photography places Carol and Therese at odds with their surroundings at the beginning, keeping the distance between the audience and them. Both Carol and Therese keep their desires firmly in the shadows, hidden from those around them, and Lachman’s camera doesn’t intrude, as distant as those that know them. When Carol and Therese meet and slowly open up to one another, the camera moves closer, indulging in these unguarded moments, and framing them as more dominant against the world.
Blanchett and Mara’s performances are the types that are beyond easy summary, they are more than something that can be contained by a single scene. In the hands of another performer, Therese could have been rendered passive, a shrinking violet relegated to being purely reactionary and the naïve preyed upon in the situation. But Mara, who was nothing less than terrifying and furious in Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the grounding force that prevented Steven Soderbergh’s otherwise wild Side Effects from completely spiraling completely out of control, holds the cards close to her chest. Therese may be out of place in the world (Carol describes her, in a fantastic turn of phrase, as “flung out of space”) and anxious as a result, as well as much younger than Carol, but unsure she is not. She’s more earnest than those around her, but that’s because she refuses to be restrained. In her eyes, there is fire, a clarity in her desire and discovery of herself.
To Mara, Carol perhaps needs Therese more than Therese needs Carol. It’s a sentiment echoed in Blanchett’s performance, who is able to conjure up the very contradiction at the centre of Carol’s character. Outwardly, she’s icy, a woman driven far into a façade by a need to be protected and accepted by an unforgiving world. No one, however, cares to look into her eyes and see the opposite. If they did, they’d see the façade breaking at the edges. Carol is indeed a warm and loving person, driven to coldness out of necessity, something that Blanchett is able to embody and move between with little more than a shift in her gaze. Like their characters, both performances are able to exist independent of each other. But when you bring them together, when you see them connect to someone else on such a deep level for the first time, able to see past every barrier the other one has put up, their screen chemistry is utterly aching.
But both wouldn’t exist in such a way if it weren’t for the work from Todd Haynes, which also included a substantial amount of collaboration with both Blanchett and Mara. Haynes’s direction is backed by a singular vision, an idea of the world and everything within it that is so clear, so-well considered that the film feels never less than perfectly judged. His direction is controlled with precision and instinct. Along with Phyllis Nagy’s expertly assembled screenplay, which took an intricately detailed and complicated novel and stripped it back to bare necessities, Haynes keeps the emotions simmering under the surface, keeping the film firmly out of melodrama. He lets every word that passes between Carol and Therese (there are few) linger in the silences, savouring it like one remembers a treasured moment with the person they’re in love with.
The thrill isn’t contained in plot beats, hence my reluctance to reveal much more about how the film unfolds. There are few twists and surprises that can be spoiled, and one can probably guess them off the general summary. Rather, the wonder is in the atmosphere, watching the pace with which it unfolds, witnessing the performances, falling under the spell of the world that Haynes and co. have constructed. The moments accumulate, and the passion, that is slowly building, is never able to be released. Every time Carol and Therese find themselves alone, one wonders if this is the moment of release. It isn’t, and the passion continues to swell, squashed by the world that is, out of their control, bad and unkind to them. The anticipation and urgency, the palpable, burning intimacy that is ripe to spill over at any moment, only makes the moments of payoff, where the ever present barriers disappear in a second, only more shattering.
The true thrill of Carol, what indeed makes it an unmatched experience, is beyond one that can be explained in a manner that is objective or analytical, and one that could be again talked about for thousands and thousands of words, only to never be satisfied. Ever since seeing Carol for the first time nearly two months ago, I have tried, to mostly no avail, to do the experience of witnessing it justice. I’ve written thousands of words about it, but none feel like the full truth. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get to the bottom of this film, this beautiful work of art that flawlessly articulates the utterly ephemeral.
It is rare I speak in superlatives about film these days. When I consider it, it feels unnecessary, untrue, over-the-top. Something else will always surely come along after it and enchant me. I’ll find more performances to praise, more direction to admire, more stories to be enthralled by. More films to adore, be affected by, to love and admire. There will always be more, nothing will ever be truly the best or most memorable. But with Carol, I feel compelled to speak in such an over-the-top manner, because this? This experience I have had with this film? This is truly once in a lifetime.
As I watch it again and again (in about three hours, I’ll be seeing it for the sixth time) and sit down to try describe the indescribable, to try capture the magic of this film, I’m convinced that indeed, this is the film I’ve been waiting the first twenty years of my life for. Why, exactly, is beyond objective reason or description, writing about it is a never ending task fraught with failure. Every time I settle into my cinema seat, hear the first longing notes, I am utterly transported to another world. It’s a world of understanding, a world of love, a world that feels straight from the depths of my heart, too familiar to actually exist. I look into Therese’s eyes and see something about myself, something ephemeral. I drink in the surroundings, trying to catch every minute detail, and failing. No matter how many times I see it, I can’t get enough.
As the film moves towards its conclusion, ambiguous and unconcerned with leaving everything perfectly tied up, my eyes start to sting. I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to return to a world outside of this one. I don’t want to be anywhere except inside this film, where two people, against all odds, find each other, despite all the evil that is fighting to keep them apart. They find their place in the world, and that place, a beautiful one, is with each other. But the music swells. The final frames, a question, a triumphant moment, a longing moment, play before my eyes. The audience doesn’t stir, taking a moment to rouse from the dream as the lights come up. It’s over again, I have to go back to the real world. But at least now, I know I have somewhere to return to.