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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Carol movie review: flung out of space

Carol green light

Flawless in every way: sumptuous visually and emotionally. One of the more mature and sophisticated romances the big screen has ever seen.
I’m “biast” (pro): adore Cate Blanchett and Todd Haynes

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

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.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Carol for its representation of girls and women.

green light 5 stars

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Carol (2015)
US/Can release: Nov 20 2015
UK/Ire release: Nov 27 2015

MPAA: rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language
BBFC: rated 15 (infrequent strong sex)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Scout Golightly

    You needn’t have worried MaryAnn. You nailed it! Thank you for reminding me with your review of all the reasons why Carol is such a great film, especially in a week when it was sadly missing from the Oscar nominations for best picture. Reading your reaction to the film and reflecting on my own utterly absorbing experience of watching Carol in the cinema, I realise that the lack of an Oscar nomination doesn’t really matter. For me, nothing released in 2015 came close to Carol, and movie-making perfection like that doesn’t need the validation of an Oscar nod.

    I had the soundtrack for Carol on hard repeat for a while after I watched the film. As you say, the auditory story-telling is as important here as the visual. Like all the best soundtracks, it manages to evoke the mood of the movie even without the images, and it’s worth listening to for the Mint Julep song alone!

    I’m a long-time reader of your site but haven’t posted before. Yesterday you posted my favourite scene of Alan Rickman from “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and today, this review. In a week that’s been pretty grim in many ways, thanks for these bright spots!

  • This looks great, and I’ll see it when it hits netflix.
    One observation is the age difference. I was curious so I looked up the actresses on IMDB. Cate will be 47 in May! Had no idea. Rooney will be 31 in April. So their just about 16 years apart. Is this an issue in the movie at all?
    I wonder if the book depicts an age difference. It’s a non-issue for me, but I just got to thinking.

  • bronxbee

    the book, The Price of Salt (which is wonderful) does depict the age difference, and <> gives the book and underlying theme that Carol doesn’t really find herself until she is basically smitten with Therese…

  • elotz

    A wonderful review MaryAnn! You described the film beautifully and I’m so disappointed that it was not nominated for a best film Oscar.

  • The story is about two women explicitly at different stages in their lives. Rooney’s character is just starting to figure out who she is. Blanchett’s is at a crossroads and must decide which of two mutually exclusive paths to take. Their ages aren’t mentioned, but the disparity in their levels of maturity is definitely part of the story.

  • The omission of *Carol* from the Best Picture nominees and Haynes from Best Director are the two most glaring snubs in the Oscar nominees. But as you say, it doesn’t matter in the long run. This will be remembered as one of the essential films of 2015.

  • bronxbee

    yes, because in some ways Terese was the more mature — she knew what she wanted and pursued it. whereas carol is almost just starting to think about what she wants.

  • Raichel

    Great review of a great film. Everyone compares Rooney/Therese to Audrey Hepburn and yes, it’s true…but have you seen Jean Simmons as a young actress? I did a quick comparison mash up here… What do you think?

  • Raichel


  • They do look alike. But she does not have the same sort of iconic status that Hepburn does, and it’s as much that status as her looks that Mara is kind of occupying here. She doesn’t only look like Hepburn but also feels like a Hepburn character.

  • Raichel

    Yes, I see what you mean MaryAnn. Meanwhile I have been dreaming of a sequel. C & T having a chance at a real life in the 1950s. It would be fascinating to see what Phyllis Nagy could come up with. Highsmith hints at travels in Europe in the book and at first, I thought that would be the way to go. However now I have finished reading the book. I think we cannot ignore the other characters. What happens to Rindy? What was it like to live in the US as an ‘out’ lesbian couple in the 50s? Or do they choose to live discreetly as ‘just friends’? I think we would like to see how Carol develops as a businesswoman now she is working and how Therese’s artistic career as a photographer takes off – perhaps with LIFE magazine. What do you think?

  • I would definitely love to revisit Rindy as an adult and see what her relationship with her mother is like, and how it affected her life.

  • JCF

    Both characters have been “aged up” from the book. In it, Carol is supposed to be 30 to 32 . . . and Therese just 19! [But in many ways an exceptionally mature 19, living on her own in NYC, w/ no family—and already career-driven, if frustrated. Emotionally however… (IMO, Highsmith was channeling the Freud that had been inflicted upon her by the times&milieu. Not particularly healthy—but could have been worse!)]

  • JCF

    Yes, IMO, a much more accurate physical comparison than to Hepburn.

  • JCF

    Sigh—that’s what fan fiction is for! ;-)

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