Todd Haynes’ Carol makes for an interesting companion piece to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, from 2013. Not primarily because they both depict lesbian relationships, but because they both offer a thoroughly entertaining and believable drama bound together by two excellent lead performances.
The titular Carol is played with svelte precision by Cate Blanchett, and we first meet her in a toy store where Terese (Rooney Mara) sells her a trainset for her daughter. Carol leaves her gloves behind and Terese returns them to her, and those events clearly share the same ulterior motive, powered by immediate attraction. We are also introduced to the fact that Carol is going through a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and is concerned about losing custody over their daughter, Rindy.
Into this walks the innocent, unsure Terese, who, like the audience, is initially unaware of quite the effect she could have. Her hobby is photography, but she feels turning her lens on human beings is intrusive; something to be shied away from. Carol awakens her more adventurous side. Terese has the attention of a number of men, but doesn’t seem interested.
Hayne’s film is structured around a glimpsed conversation in a restaurant at the beginning of the film, from which we flash back to the beginning of Carol and Terese’s romance. His direction establishes mood in the right places, lingering here and there on the faces of his protagonists, sometimes allowing stray bits of the set to obstruct the camera slightly; an indication that there will be obstacles to this burgeoning relationship. Huge credit should go to Edward Lachman’s terrific cinematography; the film was shot on Super 16, a format which contains all the warmth and naturalism that the story requires, and also helps to bring out the lovely period detail.
Carol is shorter and more focused than Blue is the Warmest Colour, but Haynes fills his frames with charm and sentiment. There are some gorgeous images in here; from a shot of the two lovers’ interlinked arms, to ripples on developing photographs, shimmering into focus like memories. Phyllis Nagy’s tender script adapts the source material (Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) adeptly, finding a balance between emotion and subtlety. Only on a couple of occasions (most notably a repeated description of Terese as having been”flung out of space”) does it stray away from believability. This film doesn’t indulge in the lovemaking scenes in the way that Kechihe’s film did, and that is a wise decision – it would’ve seemed out of place in this more mannered, less overtly passionate production.
What the two films do share is strong performances. Blanchett excellently conveys a woman desperate to maintain a relationship with her child while rapt by the charms of her younger lover. Mara must portray a transition from innocence to something approaching understanding, and does it admirably. Credit too to Kyle Chandler, who plays Harge as a conflicted figure – not brutish but unable to understand what has happened to his marriage. His could’ve been a trite villainous role, but the script is sensible enough to shy away from easy stereotypes. Carol is a n excellent film, full of warmth and romance. There’s really very little wrong with it, and if it isn’t in my top 10 at the end of the year, I’ll be very surprised.