Set in 1950s New York, a department-store clerk who dreams of a better life falls for an older, married woman.
Tipped as one of the leading awards contenders for next year’s Academy Awards, ‘Carol’ is a masterfully crafted piece of cinema from Todd Haynes, but I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing to make it truly great. Based on the 1952 novel from Patricia Highsmith called ‘The Price of Salt’, the film tells the story of a blossoming lesbian romance between an older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and a department store clerk, Therese (Rooney Mara), against the backdrop of the time period. Complicating matters is Carol’s relationship with her soon to be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) and the little girl at the centre of their divorce proceedings. You’re unlikely to see a film that is put together so perfectly this year from a technical perspective, but to believe in the narrative you’ll need to take several leaps.
‘Carol’ looks absolutely stunning from a visual perspective, from the beautifully crafted period set design to the deft direction that brings the story to life. Todd Haynes direction is so meticulously framed, every shot is like a picture and every detail is considered. Consider the way Haynes shoots each scene and how he positions each of his actors to give us a greater insight into the story than the dialogue can. A fine example is a sequence where Carol and Harge are arguing, with the scene framed in two ways, through Therese’ viewpoint as the outsider looking in, and with Therese in the background, epitomising the outsider from Harge and Carol’s perspective. Of course, this isn’t all down to Haynes and he has two superb actresses in the central roles to bring the story to life beautifully, with a supporting cast headed up by Kyle Chandler delivering impressive work as well. Cate Blanchett is an actress at the top of the game and coming off the back of an Oscar for ‘Blue Jasmine’, she is excellent once again at conveying her inner turmoil wordlessly as she grapples with her desires. Opposite her, Rooney Mara has rarely been as good, and despite Therese ultimately feeling like a bit of a blank slate, she imbues the character with a youthful earnestness that goes a long way to explaining her attraction to Carol.
The plot doesn’t captivate as much as I’d anticipated, with everything hinging on Blanchett and Mara drawing you into their passion. I found it difficult to understand what drew Carol to Therese beyond her looks, and I found aspects of the narrative to be a little unrealistic at times. The film excelled when it sat back and soaked in the atmosphere and allowed the carefully measured performances to thrive, with a couple of attempts to add more of a dramatic edge to proceedings feeling a little forced. It’s also worth calling out Carter Burwell’s superb score that helps to set the mood perfectly. ‘Carol’ is a beautifully crafted melodrama featuring two of the year’s best performances, and I found it easy to like but hard to love. I suspect this is a film that will do incredibly well with Awards bodies and critics, but less so with the general public, but that is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s good to see variety and when it gives you direction and performances of this calibre it is something worth looking out for.
Directed By: Todd Haynes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith, John Magaro and Carrie Brownstein