The glorious first shot of Todd Haynes’ Carol sets the tone for the majesty of what is to come. Opening on intricate lines that we cannot quite identify, the camera pans back to show them to be a street drain. It rises further, swooping over the bustle of New Yorkers fighting the winter chill, before coming to rest on two women at a tea room table. It is a filmmaker saying ‘This is how good I am. Now watch what I’m going to do next’. What follows is a story of such artistry and depth of feeling that you want to be one of those New Yorkers, just to be a part of this world.
Carol is a love story and a story about love. All around it is alluringly rendered 1952, but for shopgirl Therese Belivet (Mara) time is just a measure for the hours she wastes, in a job that bores her, with people who bore her. No surprise, then, that she is instantly captivated by Carol, a grand, charming customer in need of a Christmas present for her daughter. Carol thinks doll; Therese suggests train set, and so begins a series of tiny rebellions, each placed carefully on top of the last like a card tower to create something fragile, yet wondrous. From the moment Therese spots the gloves Carol has left behind (on purpose?), the increasing tension between potential happiness and what could be lost makes it impossible to look away.
Carol is married to Harge and has a daughter, while Therese is too young to know what she wants, unless of course it is a steady match with a man. There are imposing reasons why a relationship between them can’t work. And yet their meetings escalate in importance; a secluded dinner date, a venture to Carol’s house and finally a trip out West in that odd little period between Christmas and New Year. It is a time when most people are with those they love the most; Carol and Therese realise that perhaps they are too.
On seeing her performance in Blue Jasmine, one might think that is as good as Blanchett, or indeed any actor could manage. That view may have to be reassessed post-Carol; you could pause any moment she is on screen, and find a different emotion painted across her face. She is at once completely in control and at a loss; when best friend and former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson) pleads ‘Tell me you know what you’re doing’, she replies in that smoky strain perfected by Blanchett, ‘I don’t. I never did’. Her words are entirely at odds to the calm with she speaks them. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and true.
Where Carol captures the attention of the lens, it is Mara’s Therese who is holding the camera (often literally – her attempts to photograph Carol betray a longing for lasting beauty in a life typified by dullness.) Mara too has never been better, mixing the silence society has taught Therese as a woman with occasional raw blasts of emotion. All lovers know the most important words are often the most difficult to say; Mara plays this idea out as well as I’ve seen. Kyle Chandler is also excellent; he barely restrains his patriachal rage, yet we still see how the protracted separation is destroying him.
If this all sounds rather high-falutin, well, it’s not; there are plot movements treated with the same emotional purity as a good Richard Curtis film (this is entirely a compliment), and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy does a quite extraordinary job of balancing simple arrows of love in the dialogue with subtle, unspoken gestures and glances. Carol is a sublime piece of art, but perhaps its greatest achievement is that anyone who has been in love will see so much of themselves here. Around this burning desire Haynes, Nagy and the production team have placed the most brilliant of decoration. Gold-standard costume designer Sandy Powell tells us so much with the clothes, not necessarily about who the characters are but about who they are pretending to be. The set design is so good at transporting you to the 1950s that you leave the cinema wondering what the weird devices are that everyone is holding.
Even the names are delicate little curios, pleasant to the tongue and just on the right side of artifice. Try saying Therese Belivet three times in a row without falling in love with it. Like everything in this film, they are slotted into this particular tale to perfection.
Only growing in popularity since a rapturous reception at Cannes, Carol is perfectly positioned for a large haul of awards, including Oscars. It is not so much whether it will win awards as who will win them, with both Blanchett and Mara deserving of Best Actress nominations. See their astonishing performances at cinemas across the UK now.