I first saw Carol at the London Film Festival last October. So, three months ago. And I’ve been terrified to write about it ever since. This happens sometimes with a movie I fall in love with, because I fear that nothing I could say would do it justice, that I would somehow diminish it with words that fail to capture how transcendent it is. I’ve seen the film twice more since — including again just this morning — in the hope that something would inspire me to feel as if I could pin it down in a fair way. That never happened. Each re-viewing has only made me love the movie more, and grow more afraid about my ability to represent it. But it’s time to just get on with it. Just remember that whatever praise I can offer here, it’s nowhere near enough.
The first beautiful thing about Carol is its sheer perfection as a movie. As an example of how filmed storytelling can paint characters so vivid you feel like they are people you have always known, and then drop you into their world and wrap you up in the enrapturing emotions they are experiencing. On the level of craft, what movies do isn’t done better than how Carol does it. In a way that only cinema can do (TV too, though it usually doesn’t), it presents a story about the things that people do not — can not — say to one another but is instead conveyed by glances, by body language, in a larger context of what whatever everyone else around them is saying — or hiding — with glances and body language. Performances at once delicate and passionate are made even more effective by how the camera captures them, whether it’s nearby or eavesdropping from far away, by whose perspective we’re peeking in on (and sometimes how that makes a tremendous difference in the emotional undercurrent). Director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Far from Heaven) and cinematographer Edward Lachman (Howl (2010), A Prairie Home Companion) shot the film on Super 16, which lends it the look of films of the early 1950s era it’s set in… but which also gives it a dreamy quality of bittersweet memory. I’m sure entire books will be written about how Carol tells its story in a ardently visual and auditory way. My point here is that this is a film for people who love film as a way to tell stories, entirely apart from whether the precise details of the subject matter or the plot or the setting sound like your sort of thing.
Of course, though, the precise details of the story are essential to making Carol so very special. And here’s one example of how the craft works with the story to make it something bigger than it seems. The opening scene of the film gives us a man named Jack (Trent Rowland), who we may presume is going to be an important character, entering the bar-restaurant of a swanky New York City hotel, chatting with the bartender, and then shouting across the big open room at two women talking together and drinking tea. He crosses over to speak to Therese (Rooney Mara: Pan, Trash) — they appear to know each other — and she introduces him to Carol (Cate Blanchett: Truth, Cinderella). And then most of the rest of the film is a flashback about how the two women met and developed an intense romantic and sexual relationship. Jack isn’t a factor in it at all. And eventually, when the story catches up to the hotel scene and we see it from the women’s perspective, we see Jack as an interruption of a tender moment, a man who behaves as if the world were his to command and that nothing he could do would be rude or unacceptable. He can shout across an elegant space that others are enjoying quietly, and unthinkingly barge in on a private conversation, and that’s his prerogative. But these women have to pretend that they’re not in love. Always. As they discover at one point in their story, they are not free to act as they please even in private: the condemnation of men will find them even there.
Carol may look like a film from the 1950s — late in Therese’s story, Mara even looks, stunningly, like Audrey Hepburn — but it isn’t one that could have been told then, except in deeply coded and ambiguous ways. But by some additional profound miracle, Carol — based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy — manages to be simply a romance, one not defined or bounded by the homosexuality of its lovers, yet without denying that either, obviously. Therese and Carol just are who they are. The problem is that they have to fight to be who they are. This could potentially be a film not too radically different if married Carol rebelled against how her soon-to-be-ex husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler: The Wolf of Wall Street, Broken City), wishes to confine and constraint her by having an affair with another man. But then we would lose Therese’s struggle against how her fiancé, Richard (Jake Lacy: Love the Coopers, Obvious Child), wishes to confine and constrain her: it’s a dissatisfaction that Therese doesn’t even seem able to articulate or even recognize in herself until she meets Carol and discovers passion.
It’s not just passion of a sexual kind; as Therese says, she is able to relax and just talk to Carol in a way that she is unable to do with anyone else. Including poor Richard! Neither of these men are villains — though Harge does play hardball in a custody battle with their small daughter — but they do have the weight of conventional expectations in their corner, and they know it (though they believe that they are simply inherently right and normal). It’s not actually men per se who would keep the likes of Carol and Therese apart here: it’s larger social pressures of which men, in this particular case, are only the enforcers of. (At one point, Therese calls Carol “Mrs. Aird” in public, as if to reassure a third party — another woman — that everything’s cool, that she’s the property of a man, so there’s nothing untoward in Therese hanging out with her.)
But for all that, this isn’t a political film, at least not any more so than any film about people going against the grain is. This is just a simple story about two people — Therese and Carol — who happened to be exactly the right people for each other at exactly the moment they each needed a nudge to get on the right path for the rest of their lives. That might make it one of the more mature and sophisticated romances the big screen has ever seen: it’s about romantic love as a vital, necessary, true exchange between two people. This is a flawless film in every way: sumptuous visually and emotionally, thoroughly transporting, so candid about its characters that it is impossible not to imagine what continues to happen to them after the film ends. (I absolutely want to know how Carol’s daughter reflects on her mother’s life — extraordinary for the 1950s — after she has grown up.) A film that takes on a life larger than itself, that really feels as if it is peering in on a small slice of a much larger reality is a very rare and precious thing.