By Hayley Charlesworth
Visually stunning, emotionally devastating and expertly crafted, Todd Haynes’ latest cinematic offering Carol is a strong contender for one of the best films of the year. A hero of the 90s New Queer Cinema movement, Haynes has previously tackled diverse subjects such as glam rock (Velvet Goldmine), medical paranoia (Safe) and marital breakdown (Far From Heaven), all united by an exploration of the past and queer sensibility. It’s the same with Carol, a beautiful and tragic love story between two women in 1950s New York.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol tells the story of a chance meeting between Therese (Rooney Mara), a sales girl and aspiring photographer, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a glamorous mother and estranged wife. The meeting blossoms into a tentative romance culminating in a cross-country road trip over Christmas. Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is determined to do anything to ‘cure’ his wife’s sexual affliction and keep their daughter away from her.
The road movie is often synonymous with a voyage of discovery. Carol is just as much about Therese discovering her sexual identity as it is Carol’s family drama and their love story. Blanchett and Mara give their best performances as the burgeoning lovers, with Mara embodying naivety and innocence and Blanchett being utterly enthralling in one of her most complex roles to date. The supporting characters are uniformly excellent, in particular Kyle Chandler’s Harge, a man so dedicated to 1950s family values that any threat to his nuclear family is near incomprehensible.
A long tradition of Haynes exploring the past means he has expertly captured 1950s New York in style, atmosphere, and in the grainy film stock that looks distinctly vintage. He has encapsulated the repression of women, especially lesbian women, in the 1950s through muted colours, the drab winter setting, and the claustrophobic rooms of Therese’s apartment. When Therese begins to fall for Carol, we see Carol dressed in bright red against a backdrop of browns and greens: the only bright spot in a lifeless world.
Haynes also looks back to classics of the period, specifically to David Lean’s Brief Encounter, from which Carol borrows structure and shots. This is not new territory for Haynes, whose glam rock tale Velvet Goldmine utilised Citizen Kane’s story structure. Carol, and Haynes’ other films, become a love letter to the cinema that inspired him.
With its Christmas setting, Carol is appropriate viewing for the season, but is far removed from the bright, sugar-coated staples of Christmas. It may be the most melancholy romance of the year, but that doesn’t make the film any less beautiful thanks to stunning performances of Blanchett and Mara, as well as Haynes’ expert direction.
Hayley Charlesworth is an MA student in English Studies. She can be found on Twitter at @fatherbananas.