Todd Haynes is a genius filmmaker. Sometimes his genius is readily recognizable in its grand scale spectacle, like with the glam rock opera Velvet Goldmine. Other times, it’s a more subtle kind of genius, like in Far From Heaven, a period drama about forbidden romance. Haynes’ latest, Carol, is firmly in the latter category. Carol has been topping a lot of Best of 2015 lists (including Britnee’s) & generating early awards-season buzz for its two stars (Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara), but as is the case with the human-captivity drama Room, the buzz surrounding Carol might be working somewhat to the film’s detriment. At heart, Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary ammount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.
The titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy 1950s housewife undergoing a messy divorce with a husband who refuses to accept her homosexuality as a natural aspect of her personality. The much younger Therese (Rooney Mara) is a shop girl going through a similar romantic struggle with a young beau she knows she should be smitten with, but simply isn’t. At these romantic crossroads, our two heroines fall for one another at first glance. Unable to express exactly what they’re thinking in the public eye, they speak merely through a socially-acceptable customer-saleswoman dynamic until they feel free to push the boundaries of where they’ll allow their desire to take them. It isn’t until the two discover freedom through travel on the open road that their yearning reaches its tipping point, leading to all sorts of emotional & legal fallout thanks to the uncaring world that sees their passion as a question of poor morality & mental illness. The power dynamic of their relationship (with the learned, elegant Carol tending to mother the girlish, just-discovering-herself Therese in an uncomfortable way) also strains what feels like a wrong place/wrong time, but ultimately meant to be romance.
Haynes handles the delicate nature of Therese & Carol’s passion with a surgeon’s precision, expressing their unspoken desire through intensely focused looks at details like the nape of a neck, the curve of a lip, the fetishistic exploration of a pair of gloves. He matches the obscured way they express their desire by filming the couple through windows like a voyeur so that they’re one step removed, especially in the stretches where the film functions as a travelogue. He also directly nods to the very medium he’s working in, making a big to-do about Therese’s interest in photography & having a moviegoer explain directly that you have to pay close attention to what characters say vs. what they actually mean. Blanchett & Mara obviously deserve much of the credit for making the film work in its small, under the radar way. It’s incredible that they can communicate so much desire through body language & low, guarded voices while still selling humor in lines like “Just when you think it can’t get worse, you run out of cigarettes.” As a trio, Blanchett, Mara, and Haynes construct a deeply romantic, emotionally trying, and at times damn sexy narrative seemingly without ever lifting a finger.
Carol deserves each & every one of its accolades. If I had seen it before the year had ended it may have very well made our Top Films of 2015 list (distribution schedules are a cruel, confounding beast). It certainly would’ve been included with my 2015 Christmastime Counterprogramming list if nothing else. I don’t think that the film needs to be championed in that way to get its full due, though. It’s almost better that it can exist under the radar, hidden from the awards season glamour, much how like its characters’ homosexual subculture is a secret world in plain sight. Carol is an elegant, understated gift that needs to be handled with care. I’m hoping its longevity as a work lasts much longer than the end-of-the-year roundups & trophy distributions. Thankfully, Haynes’ career is fascinating enough as a whole that it most likely won’t be an issue. I look forward to revisiting this one in the years to come.
Side Note: Whoever negotiated Carrie Brownstein’s credit in the opening scroll deserves a raise. I don’t know if her part was cut down in the editing room or what, but she barely even makes an appearance. So, you know, don’t get too excited about spending time with her when you see that opening credit. There’s not much of her part to go around.