Running time 1hr 58mins
PLENTY of us love a big, dumb blockbuster – the box office statistics are testament to that. But once in a while, a thoughtful, intelligent and – in some ways – low-key film breaks into the mainstream and reminds us how exhilarating it is to watch an exceptionally rich, well-made and well-presented piece of screen literature.
That’s precisely what Carol is. It’s so beautifully and masterfully constructed that you can actually read it in the way cinema was always meant to be read, with every filmic decision deliberate, and imbued with meaning. You devour every symbolic nuance
and signifier, whether it’s the eponymous Carol’s warning-flag penchant for red or the way in which our view of her is at choice moments obscured.
Director Todd Haynes has previous with this kind of work. Adept at not only constructing period pieces that reflect the time, he
also painstakingly recreates the filmmaking methods and techniques of the era. Proving himself with the 50s-set Far From Heaven, where – as with Carol – he deals with forbidden love and holds a magnifying glass up to the social norms of the day, he cemented his reputation with TV mini series Mildred Pierce (based on the 30s-set 1945 Joan Crawford cinema classic) before turning his attention to Carol.
Taking its inspiration from the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt, the story concerns a love affair which blossoms between a well-to-do woman of some social standing and a down-at-heel shop girl. It explores familiar Haynes subject matter – of strong, progressive women who fall victim to the unenlightened times they’re living in.
We come to learn as the film progresses that Carol (Cate Blanchett) is seeking divorce from her husband following revelations of romantic entanglements with another woman – Abby (Sarah Paulson). But the couple have a daughter and Carol wants custody. However, the courts, having got wind of her ‘immoral activity’, and her husband have other ideas. Could this newfound love with Therese (Rooney Mara) – a woman some years her junior – be doomed from the outset?
A Douglas Sirk-soaked melodrama, Carol also has notes of film noir, just as Mildred Pierce does, while looking at it through a modern lens bestows it with a satirical edge. Restrained and moody, Haynes injects a Brief Encounter-style feeling throughout – beginning at the beginning, when we see Carol and Therese interrupted during a tête-a-tête in a restaurant. This is a moment that comes around again later in the film, after the back story is filled in, bringing with it a greater resonance. Looking back, there are hints at what is to come – or what has been, rather – and sadness pervades. A tender touch on the shoulder which is at first puzzling, innocuous even, and yet tonally somehow melancholic becomes deeply sorrowful and touching.
Blanchett as Carol – signalled in early scenes as the noirish femme fatale – is sultry, sassy, enigmatic, yet unhappy – a feeling that’s mirrored in the younger, confused Therese. With perfectly measured doses of dialogue, there’s not an ounce of flab in this wonderfully executed, meticulously-balanced film. Treating audiences with the respect they deserve, Haynes affords us the privilege of doing a lot of the work for ourselves. The result? An extraordinarily rewarding experience.