Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett
Watch Carol online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Sky Store / Google Play
Carol is a love story in which the words “I love you” are only sincerely said once. It sounds like a small detail, but Todd Hayne’s film is full of them – it fetishises details like someone getting high on samples of period wallpaper.
The period in question is the 1950s, a time when feelings between two women couldn’t be spoken out loud – and that’s exactly what Haynes delivers. The director sets the tone immediately with a framing device borrowed from Brief Encounter, cinema’s definitive tale of repressed, unrequited love. But here, the conversation is between Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara), who are interrupted in the middle of a seemingly tender heart-to-heart by a male acquaintance – the kind of interruption by heterosexual society that will define, and has defined, up to that point, their whole relationship.
But if Brief Encounter kept its duo apart, Carol is more progressive than that, allowing a sense of possible closure for the pair, as a hint of happiness creeps into the final frames. Indeed, there’s no sense at any point that either woman should feel bad for their emotions – there are no crises in confidence or moral dilemmas on display, just their love, pure and simple.
Mara and Blanchett play it with a visible lightning bolt of attraction: the young shopkeeper and middle-aged housewife meet one Christmas, when the latter orders a toy train set to be delivered to her address for a present. A pair of gloves left behind, perhaps on purpose, bring Therese to Carol’s house – and things go from there.
The casting is perfect: Mara, wide-eyed and timidly spoken, is the physical embodiment of youthful yearning, while Blanchett’s typically imperious exterior crumbles, every so slowly, with the quake of their burgeoning bond. It’s telling that they were marketed as either leading or supporting actresses during 2015’s awards race to avoid any voting clashes – the two are so good together that ideally, they would have been nominated for one combined performance. But Haynes retains a distance between us and them throughout, not just showing restraint, but holding back almost completely. It’s a decision that, again, is the sum of countless minute touches, from the pristine costumes to Carter Burwell’s swooningly melancholic score. The result is elegantly composed, so much so that it almost carries a chilly exterior; it’s only fitting that Therese should be a photographer outside of her job, forever placing her an optical zoom away from the eponymous object of her affections.
That detachment, though, only underscores the passion of their relationship, placing a modern audience, where lesbian relationships are accepted by society, right in the mindset of the period. Writer Phyllis Nagy, who has been struggling to get this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel to the screen for decades, has honed the delicate tone to perfection – the ever-chameleonic Sarah Paulson as Carol’s former lover and an intense Kyle Chandler as her possessive husband, Harge, only add layers to the complex portrait of convention and conflict. The end product is gorgeous to behold, not just heartbreaking but uplifting too. Carol is a window onto a perfectly rendered world of tenderness and silence, in which the words “I love you” aren’t even needed – here, the slightest brush of hands is meaningful, and a mere glance across a restaurant can speak volumes.
Carol is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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