To clumsily misquote Don Draper cinema can be a time machine. It can take you places that exist only in the fevered minds of its practitioners, to fictional worlds and realms of the imagination, across borders and cultures through a shared and subconsciously understood visual and temporal grammar. At its best it illuminates unknown peninsulas of the human condition, walking in the shadow of characters’ lives and loves whom perhaps would not be part of our life experiences, taking us into the past or forward to the future to grace our hearts with shared fears and ambitions which permeate across time and cultures – L.P. Hartley’s assertion that ‘the past is a foreign place, they do things differently there’ finds a smouldering riposte from Todd Haynes new masterpiece in the making Carol. After failing to net one of the hottest tickets from Cannes at this year’s LFF I was determined to correct this oversight when the film finally hit London cinemas, and I was mildly surprised to see such a niche picture playing at my local mainstream serving multiplex. When it comes to the 1950’s we’ve been here of course, with Leave Her To Heaven Haynes poisoned valentine to the those subversive Douglas Sirk melodramas, both filmmakers intent in smuggling in some uncomfortable allusions of American social mores and restrictions that echo throughout the decades. In Carol the setting is similar but the tale is more universally malleable, culled from the novel The Price Of Salt from the increasingly popular Patricia Highsmith whose work is replete with psychotically disrupted figures isolated in the margins of mainstream society, their psychosis sometimes vented as if from a steam kettle in violent and cruel behaviours. That’s not the case in Carol however as this is love story through and through, which despite its marginalised ingredients will thaw the most glacial of hearts.
Christmas is always a potent time to set a story, a shared period of nostalgia, intimacy and familial affection, or perhaps a bittersweet phase when one of these socially enforced expectations is left waning under a lonely mistletoe. In a superbly evocative 1950’s New York the ethereally forlorn Therese (Rooney Mara, just magnificent) is working to make ends meet in a staid department store, a budding but hesitant photographer whose aspirations conjure ideals of seeing and recording, of whispered glances and poignant memories. Her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacey) is a reasonable, average and seemingly nice guy, and although their physical relations remain unconsummated marriage seems to be inevitable. In the final week before Christmas everything changes when a statuesque blonde walks into her life, the aloof but elegantly alluring Carol (paging Cate Blanchet, your third Oscar is here), and through an exquisite use of space and POV we immediately understand this is love at first sight. A hesitant and careful friendship is ignited, Carol bruised and bored from the world of weekends in the Hamptons, of Martini swilling bridge evenings and dour social functions, a polar opposite to Therese’s salt of the earth, beer drinking Lower East Side bar-hopping. Slowly, hesitantly, through elegant moments of communication that are almost painful in their subtlety we understand that both spirits are adrift and unmoored, surrounding by friends and family but ‘completely alone’ as Therese memorably mutters during one of their initial assignations. Inevitably the frowning social constrictions coalesce, as Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) threatens custody objections to isolate her from her beloved daughter, and return to her duties as the trophy wife. A deepening narrative teaches us that Carol has prior history in such (by the standards of the era) unseemly behaviour, while Therese’s boyfriend reacts furiously to her new acquaintance that he dismisses as an adolescent crush. The path of true love never runs straight (if you’ll forgive the pun) in this study of simmering seduction, that yearns beyond its historic and gendered conventions.
Cate Blanchet further cements her reputation as one of the great actresses of modern English language cinema, in a performance which is simultaneously warm and aloof, perched upon a pedestal but soaked in tear-stained empathy, speared with a loving cinephile embrace like the Golden Era demagogues Hayworth, Davis and Crawford. And this is the crux of what Haynes has achieved here, pushing aside the Norman Rockwell setting to speak deeply to the sulphurous act of falling in love, of the inexpressible yearning and swooning which makes colours dance more intensely and the heart skip, factored equally through both parties eyes despite the feint that the marketing and title would have you believe. Rooney Mara deserves as many accolades and gongs as her co-star as she evolves from porcelain vulnerability to matured intensity, a genuine journey of intimate experience that is laced throughout her tissue shredding performance. Haynes direction is as invisible as it is exquisite and slightly off kilter, framing discussions and interactions through doors and windows to suggest both new beginnings and invisible entrapment, while securing sterling support from Chandler (angry but also sympathetically confused) and Sarah Paulson as one of Carol’s worldly wise past conquests. Like a lot of his comrades Haynes has made specific choices around film stock when judging the technical relationship to the story he is trying to illuminate, there is a whole other article to write on some artists reaction to the digital hegemony but now is not the place, other than to say his instincts impeccable in what was probably a hard sell to his investors. Shot on the grainy super 16mm format is an unusual but appropriate choice, offering a historical authenticity, a warmth and intimacy, smothering the romance in a gentle embrace of lazy sleet and tarnished tinsel.
Y’know sometimes gentle reader there are films that generate a quiet subconscious voice that whispers of historical proportions, that as you are watching them promise that if the skill and quality is maintained that you’re digesting something genuinely special, the last time I had this reaction was probably Under The Skin which we all know will be studied and discussed for as long as cinema remains a viable art form. On paper a 1950’s lesbian romance isn’t exactly in the Menagerie wheelhouse, but this is simply a heart-breaking piece of work which should touch anyone with the weakest flutter of a heart, so it’s no surprise that it has scored so highly across all the lists of the year which are starting to spawn. On a craft and directorial level the filmmaking is simply impeccable, and without wanting to spoil a central premise of the narrative design the choice to return to a bookend scene from different perspectives can be tricky proposition to execute, but Haynes pulls off this feat in a fashion identical to the obvious and admitted inspiration Brief Encounter. The grace of Carol is all in the pregnant poise, in the unuttered and suggested rather than through any explicit material, so when the real emotions burst through the constrictive carapace of the social order the effect is shattering. With its beautiful and emotionally charged crescendo emerging as perhaps the sequence of the year Carol is a significant work from a significant artist working at the peak of his powers, in one of the most moving films of the year;