Carol is a throwback to the big Hollywood romances of the Golden Age. Therese, a poor shop girl in a Manhattan toy department, catches the eye of Carol, a wealthy married socialite facing divorce for her indiscretions. Carol courts Therese with lunch, a trip to her sprawling New Jersey estate, and playful gifts and banter. When Therese finally reciprocates and agrees on a cross-country road trip for the holidays, both of their lives are changed forever. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapts Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt into a beautiful, playful, high button romantic drama. Frankly, the only reason this screenplay couldn't have existed and been acclaimed 50, 60 years ago is the lesbian romance at the center. Swap out Carol for Carl or Therese for Terrence and you have a typical forbidden love/love conquers all romance. When it's done this well, with such wit and masterful structure, that's nothing short of a compliment.
Director Todd Haynes is no stranger to quiet, forbidden love on film. He is the writer/director behind Far From Heaven, another period romance with taboo for the 50s elements. Where Far From Heaven is a bright fantasy of nostalgia, Carol is cooler, quieter, and played closer to the chest. That subtlety makes this particular story sing.
There's so much to champion in Carol on a technical level. Sandy Powell's costumes are masterful. She clearly designates social class and standing in the NYC Metro area with the weight of fabric contrasted with the lightness of color; rich Carol wears extraordinarily tailored and structured clothing in beautiful pastels, while poor Therese wears darker, looser, uncontrolled clothing in earth tones. It even extends to the menswear (a plot twist is telegraphed by fabric choices of all things) and how the workers in the department store dress compared to their clientele.
Judy Becker, Jesse Rosenthal, and Heather Loeffler do beautiful work in production, art, and set design/decoration. Everything feels authentic to the period. Dealing in strong contrast for storytelling again, the intimate design of Therese's small apartment--filled with photos, furniture, and all sorts of decor--pushes her as far away as possible from Carol's sparse and elegant NJ mansion. Yet even Carol herself rebels from the clinical perfection when she allows her young daughter Rindy to decorate the Christmas tree; it's sloppy, uneven, and heralded as the prettiest tree in all of the world by her adoring mother. These kind of details give an actor so much to work with on a set, even if they don't fully know why the concentration of objects in a living space can impact their carriage and mental space.
Suffice it to say the acting is wonderful in Carol. Rooney Mara, as Therese, steals the show from a never-better Cate Blanchett, as Carol. Their chemistry is electric, making every scene where they don't appear together feel colder and more distant to excellent narrative effect. Kyle Chandler (Carol's husband Harge), Sarah Paulson (Carol's former lover Abby), and Jack Lacy (Therese's almost-boyfriend Richard) all do wonderful ensemble work as they slowly unravel the true nature of Therese and Carol's friendship. It's a tight core ensemble providing a wide range of social interactions and faux pas that only enhance the beauty of the central relationship in the film.
Photography and snow play equally important roles in the film. Therese is a wannabe professional photographer who, through the encouragement of Carol, begins to explore and pursue her true professional passion. The quality of her photos and fight for self-actualization mirror the status of her relationship with Carol.
Similarly, the delicate flurry of snow that appears at key moments is a visual metaphor for true love. That does not mean it only follows Carol and Therese. Anytime someone commits a selfless act of love for the sake of love and nothing more, snowflakes slowly drift into the shot. Carol herself announces this motif when she picks up Therese for her visit to NJ, declaring unbridled excitement that she thinks she sees snow falling on their first real date.
Carol is not a flashy film. This kind of story can never truly succeed if played for melodramatic effect. What Carol provides is an antidote to the ultra-busy, constantly cutting and spinning world of modern cinema that all too often neglects the needs of the story for the attention span of the audience. Tell the story well and the audience will wait with you; Carol proves that.
Carol is currently playing in theaters.