The Carol of the title is a woman of elegance, poise, and unblemished beauty. A swooning intoxication radiates from her piercing stare, and a magnetic allure emanates from her pristine ensemble. Look closer though, and you soon see that this is not a woman who lives a life of fulfilment; behind her penetrating eyes is a pain, which cuts deeper than her gaze ever could.
At the centre of Carol, Todd Haynes’ immaculately coutured 50s-set romantic drama, is a bond between two women that goes far beyond friendship. And over the course of a 2-hour running time, Haynes, working from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel The Prince of Salt, details the intricacies of Carol’s (Cate Blanchett, brilliant) impassioned relationship with the ingénue Therese (Rooney Mara, magnificent), beginning with the moment they catch each other’s eye.
When we first encounter the pair, however, their connection is already at a crossroads. As they sit together taking tea in an opulent restaurant, we approach, unable to hear what they say but fully aware of the aching sorrow that exists between them. Carol makes her excuses and goes to leave, and as she does her hand briefly rests on her lover’s shoulder. The expression on Therese’s face says everything; it’s a brief charge of purest euphoria.This is a film that comes straight out of the David Lean school of love, and specifically homages Brief Encounter – although it never quite reaches the same dizzying levels of majesty. It’s a story of forbidden ecstasy that grows between two lost souls. Carol is an older woman in the throws of a tumultuous divorce from a man (Kyle Chandler) who cannot understand his wife’s orientation, while Therese is a girl in her 20s, struggling to accept the connotations of her long-time boyfriend’s (Jake Lacy) regular declarations of love.
From their first meeting in the Manhattan department store where Therese works, a sense of desire exists between the couple. And despite the possible implications it could have on her chances of keeping custody of her beloved daughter, and the social conformities of the era, Carol pursues the courtship; at first embarking on a lunch date, and later by spending the evening together at her lavish Upstate home.
Aided by the exquisite performances of his two female leads – Blanchett and Mara both delicately encapsulate the individual ardours and agonies that come from offering up your heart and falling in love – Haynes treads gradually, as if walking on egg shells without wishing to break them. Carol and Therese’s feelings bloom naturally, their tender affection developing after they escape the confines of the city and head for the open road. There’s a sexual yearning between them, but neither wishes to push the other, allowing such intimacy to occur spontaneously when they’re ready. And when it does, it’s the single most genuine display of passion you’re likely to see on the screen this year.All of this Haynes tells through an absorbing aesthetic that captures the lush vibrancy of the era without ever feeling excessive. Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler’s set design and decoration are rich; Sandy Powell’s costumes ravish; Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction is resplendent. And it’s all enhanced by DP Ed Lachman’s extraordinary use of Super 16mm film, and Carter Burwell’s rhythmically sensitive score, which when juxtaposed together bathe the film in a muted hue that movingly mirrors many images of the era.
There’s a deep-rooted emotional complexity to both Carol the film, and the character, which Haynes ever so gently draws to the surface. The third act is a bruising onslaught of honest and heartbreaking sequences, the apex of which sees Blanchett’s eponymous socialite plea for peace, acceptance and understanding during a divorce deposition; the silence that follows is spine tingling.
Occasionally, it must be said, the poignancy ingrained within the very veins of the story sends out a chill that’s inhospitably cold and, dare it be said, emotionally stiff; freezing you to your core like the bleakest of midwinter nights. But only momentarily does this detract you from what is an astonishingly affecting film. When Celia Johnson said goodbye to Trevor Howard at the end of Brief Encounter, she was so drained and devastated that she had “only an overwhelming desire not to feel anything ever again”; as the screen fades to black at the end of Carol, it’s likely that you’ll feel the same.