Todd Haynes’ 2015 drama Carol opens on a fake-out. With the camera hovering around and through the streets of 1950s New York on a winter evening, we follow a young man named Jack to a bar, where the “What’ll it be?” routine plays out. He pays for a double and the bartender’s drink of choice, says he has to make a phone call, and walking over, the damn star of the show, interrupts two women in the midst of a grave conversation. He either doesn’t notice or care that he startled them, and does not pick up that his arrival has ended the conversation. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) makes her exit, inviting Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) to meet her later if she so desires. Jack all but insists himself that Therese has plans. He gives her a ride to a party, and from there, the rest of the story is told in flashback, as Therese stares out the window of the car in agony.
Two women, out to dinner, interrupted by a man. It works as a table-setter, both for the story (as you build towards the significance of that particular conversation) and the era (the casual dismissal of women and their agency in everyday American life). And it manages to be more heartbreaking the second time around.
Carol is a romance, but that isn’t all it is. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, it tells the story of a young, early twenties shopgirl, who falls for an older woman in the process of divorcing her husband and fighting for custody of their daughter. In the wrong hands, this could play out in a pulpy, seedy fashion; Haynes ensures that it does not. There’s a passionate climax, sure, as most Hollywood lesbian dramas necessitate. But thanks to a terrific screenplay by Phyllis Nagy and two of the strongest performances you’ll see all year from Blanchett and Mara, it amounts to a near classic.
It all starts with the leads. Cate Blanchett is, of course, elegance incarnate. This is nothing new. But as Carol, there is more than a hint of the neuroticism that Blanchett brought to her performance as the title role in Blue Jasmine (a cigarette fumbled; a clattering tea-cup). This brings a sense of balance to Carol’s character, at times the seductress that Abby (Carol’s best friend, ex-lover, handler, and confidante) suggests she is; at others, she is starved and lonely. This is all without mention of Carol’s motherhood, and her tenderness and verve with her daughter Rindy, or her aptitude for well spoken rejoinders. Simply put, Carol as played by Blanchett is as complex and terrific a role you’ll see all year.
And she’s almost bettered by Rooney Mara, more vulnerable here than she’s ever shown. Gone is the steely distance of her turn as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though she retains some of the fire behind the eyes. Instead, she recalls Natalie Portman, if stripped of her twee affectation. But Mara convinces easily of Therese’s journey, and avoids the pitfalls the character invites (playing her as a waif in the beginning, playing her debonair and “learned” toward the end).
Each actress shines against the other, and both have scenes (Blanchett declaring, “We’re not ugly people” in the boardroom meeting with Harge; Mara, in her staredown with Blanchett from the first and near final scenes). They make a strong case that they are vital to the entire enterprise, and in Blanchett’s case, she fully stakes claim to the titular character.
The film is so wrapped up in its two romantic leads that it only needs a barebones supporting cast. Kyle Chandler is admirable as Harge. A thoughtful actor, he plays Harge’s drunken fits of cruelty as desperate, and he excellently conveys a sense of humanity in response to Blanchett’s “ugly people” speech. (Of course, Harge just won full custody over Rindy, with Carol conceding to supervised visits, because, progress! But at least he looks sad about it.) Chandler is joined by Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard, Carol’s best friend, ex-lover, and handler of affairs. Paulson is earnest, but she always seems to be acting through her character in service of some larger purpose. In her portrayal of Abby, I wasn’t entirely sure who she was supposed to be. Jake Lacy and John Magaro round out the cast as two dudes, each of whom objectify Therese in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways before moving on. Throw in a surprise Carrie Brownstein cameo, and there you have it. Jack, it turns out, was a nobody.
Haynes’ direction is assured throughout, mostly content to let the camera follow his characters. When Carol and Therese first ride out to New Jersey, the physical tension is enhanced by close-ups (Carol’s finger hovering over the heater button) and reflections in glass. These car rides become a small motif of the film, as the cross-country road trip is the milieu for Therese and Carol’s deepening relationship. Haynes pairs these scenes with a fine attention to the details of 1950s America, the dolls and train sets, the clothing and fashion, the martinis. But he imbues the world with a sinister quality which matches the misogynistic and homophobic society he insists on capturing. One pervasive example is the rise of “corporate speak” which Therese encounters in her work at the department store (“Season’s greetings, from the management! Season’s greetings, from the management!” as every employee grabs a Santa hat) and on the road in the motels (“... Or we do have the presidential suite available, for a very attractive rate.”)
The story ultimately ends, if not happily, at a structured negotiation of boundaries. Carol can see her daughter, and can continue her relationship with Therese as long as it is under the guise of homosocial live-in friendship. And Therese finds that, at the parties of the young, emerging Beat generation, she can flirt openly with another woman, even if it is after everyone has passed out. The film ends more ambiguously than does its source material, which was groundbreaking in gay and lesbian literature for its happy ending outside of a sanitorium or a coffin. While Carol may not be as groundbreaking, it should certainly prove lasting in its excellence, and will rank among the films of the year.
Carol recently swept the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association’s top awards. It did not receive a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Picture or Best Director.
Christopher Kaluzienski is assistant editor at WUSSY in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s been told he should be more interested in humans.