It’s instructive to have seen Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ film about the love that dare not speak its name, before seeing Carol. Both are set in the 1950s, when homosexuality was considered a psychological disorder (actually, that officially didn’t change until recently), and both are beautiful to behold. Far From Heaven was made to look like a Douglas Sirk film, but Carol is something altogether unique, a love story that is among the best of its kind.
Set in 1952-53, Carol concerns two women. One is a mousy shopgirl, played by Rooney Mara.We don’t know much about her. She’s dating a kind of dull but good looking guy (Jake Lacy) but they haven’t gone “all the way,” and we can assume she’s a virgin. She seems to be drifting through the life. When asked about her fuure, she shrugs and says, “I don’t even know what to order for lunch.”
The other woman is the title character, Cate Blanchett, a woman of great means. During the Christmas season she buys a train set from Mara and leaves behind her gloves. Does she do it on purpose? Is it an act of the subconscious? Perhaps. Mara returns the gloves and a friendship is born, although both seem to know where it is headed. Blanchett is a woman with a history of lesbianism, as she once was in a relationship with a childhood friend (Sarah Paulson). Her ex-husband, Kyle Chandler, seems panicked that it will happen again. He impulsively slaps on injunction on her, keeping her away from their daughter, and she just as impulsively drives west, Mara by her side.
As I said, the first thing one notices is how beautiful this film is. The cinematographer is Ed Lachman, who also shot Far From Heaven. The opening scenes in the department store are enchanting, as we see what those kind of emporiums were like back in those days, when one store had everything, but in a classy way (“baby dolls” were on the shelves, but not in plastic boxes). This beauty extends to the streets of New York, and the roadside inns of middle America (the women’s journey ends, notably, in Waterloo, Iowa).
Beyond that, Haynes knows how to shoot a movie. Every frame is perfect, in a kind of photographic sensibility. It’s interesting that Mara wants to be a photographer, and when he see her work it seems much like Haynes’ style in the film, though in black and white.
Mostly, though, Carol captures what it is like to fall in love, not from the details but from the broad brush strokes. Blanchett is taken with Mara from the start, and Haynes shrewdly chooses not to display the epiphany Mara has when she realizes what Blanchett is interested in and when she realizes she is equally attracted. It just happens. We also don’t see them engaging in chit-chat, discovering common interests, etc. This kind love is about a look, a presence, and we can feel it in our seats.
Much of this is due to Haynes’ brilliant work, but great credit also goes to Mara and Blanchett. Both are extremely photogenic, and Haynes and Lachman may great use of their faces. But the acting is sublime. It’s natural and seems effortless, subtle and without histrionics, the hardest kind of acting there is. I won’t soon forget the film’s last shot, which is one of the best in recent memory.
The poll at Film Comment just came out and Carol was named the best film of the year. I can’t say that’s a mistake.