Todd Haynes rarely does subtle, or restrained. His last three features have, in fact, been big and broad and wild: Far From Heaven was lush melodrama, Velvet Goldmine an amyl-huffing blast of glam, I’m Not There a kaleidoscopic trip through identity and rock. Carol, his latest film, goes smaller, more intimate and more repressed - with mixed results.
Set in 1952, Carol follows Therese Belevet, a shopgirl and amateur photographer, who meets and falls for an older woman. That woman, Carol Aird, is in the middle of a divorce brought on by her lesbian extramarital affairs, and as she struggles with the prospect of losing her daughter Carol is drawn to the younger woman, and takes her on a roadtrip to nowhere, with just ‘west’ as the destination.
The relationship between Therese and Carol is a slow minuet, a dance of two people trying to signal to each other who they truly are and how they truly feel. There’s a tension to it all, as Therese - seemingly indulging her sexuality for the first time - tries to understand what is going on between her and the woman on whom she has a crush. Is Carol a mentor, a role model? On their first lunch date Therese simply orders exactly what Carol has. Is Carol a confidante? A maternal figure? But as Therese struggles through all of these questions - fairly quietly and internally - we know that she and Carol are experiencing a kind of love that polite society of the time cannot tolerate.
Haynes has done this before, and in this same time period; Far From Heaven tackled not only closeted homosexuality but also interracial romance in the Eisenhower era. In that film the melodrama burst through the strained confines of 1950s etiquette, fracturing the suburban American dream with passion and heartbreak. Carol never bursts anywhere, and perhaps that’s why the movie never clicked with me emotionally.
It’s a strange thing to be watching a film and to understand that it’s well made but not be emotionally involved; the production design of Carol is top-notch and the costumes are sumptuous (and photographed with loving care), while the leads are extraordinary and real, and the framing and camerawork is rigorous and intelligent. But none of those things pulled me in, and more than once the thudding script by Phyllis Nagy, based on Patricia Highsmith's autobiographical novel. pulled me out (Therese is working in the doll section of her store, but she loves model trains. She wants to show Carol one but can’t because “I’m confined behind this counter,” an on-the-nose critique of gender roles. Later the couple end up in the town of Waterloo, whose name they make sure to note, and then have a bad thing happens that defeats them. Clunky). Others have been responding to Carol with rapturous enthusiasm, while I walked out of the film thinking it was nice enough.
Cate Blanchett is - rightly - being singled out for her performance, but I found that Rooney Mara as Therese captivated me more. The film is called Carol, but it’s really Therese’s story, and Mara essays a low-key confusion mixed with a low-key hunger that I found intriguing. She’s navigating her own world without any guideposts, unsure how to proceed but always moving forward. Blanchett, meanwhile, has a more complicated role, and throughout the film I was never sure if Carol was a predator, and that added to the tension between the leads.
But even if Carol is a predator, Haynes brings humanity to all of his characters, even to Carol’s enraged husband, played by Kyle Chandler. It would be easy to make him an obvious heavy - have him rough up Carol a bit, be more threatening* - but instead he’s played as a sad, confused guy who doesn’t understand why his vision of the perfect upper class American family isn’t coming to pass, why his wife doesn’t love him in the way he wants and expects. This is contrasted with Therese’s relationship with the square jawed Richard (Obvious Child’s Jake Lacy looking absolutely gee-whiz period appropriate), and we see how different generations of women deal with their taboo nature.
All of this sounds more dramatic than it plays in the film, where formal and still frames often allow drama to leak out at the edges. There’s something suffocating in Carol, a feeling like being wrapped up in too much of the finest wool. You’re comfortable and appreciative and luxurious and yet stuffy and unable to interact with the world around you.
There is one wild card for me and Carol: the ending. The final shot of the film is extraordinary, and not because it’s fancy or flashy. It’s just a moment between two characters, but it’s as if the slow burn of the film’s fuse has finally hit the gunpowder. In this one moment my heart sang and I was filled with the emotions that had been so elusive for the previous two hours… and then it cut to black. Perhaps on a future viewing, with this incredible ending on my mind, I too will come to understand the larger love for Carol.
*which would at least explain the presence of a gun in the film, a gun that serves neither narrative or thematic purpose.