Director Todd Haynes, so good at recreating the feel of certain eras in American culture, here in Carol, fully and beautifully realizes the 1950s, particularly the 1950s of the upper classes. The costumes, the nightclubs, the Manhattan house parties and restaurants, a fancy store’s toy department — all are stamped with Haynes’ magic eye for period flavor and detail. This becomes our setting for one of the most honest, deliberate love stories in recent memory. This is, in fact, the first movie I can recall that treats lesbians as flesh-and-blood human beings with human passions – absent from Carol are the shame and fear of the two schoolteachers in 1951’s The Children’s Hour, directed by William Wyler from the hit Lillian Hellman play, or the over-the-top histrionics (which, don’t get me wrong, I liked) of The Killing of Sister George (1968, directed by Robert Aldrich). Every character in Carol is an original, genuine, open. Everybody cares and cares deeply about the other, which makes the hurt, when hurt does come, all the more palpable, deep.
I like the men in the story. It is not that males here are dumb, clueless clucks (although in some scenes their blindness to their women’s needs could be textbook illustrations for male insensitivity). It is simply that they (Therese’s two suitors, played by Jake Lacy and John Mangaro and Carol’s husband, played by Kyle Chandler) cannot possibly compete with the ardent passion these two women feel for each other. Carol (Cate Blanchett), the worldly-wise one, has of course, had lesbian affairs before, but it is Therese’s audacious leap into the Lady Pond that seizes us, as well as her. Lust here is audacious, too, unapologetic. Carol’s seduction of her newfound friend is instant, perhaps calculated, but behind her scheming arrangements can be felt a jittery, desperate need for their liaison to succeed — she is spoiled, used to getting her own way, yes – she wants Therese and means to have her, but Blanchett hides within her character such a fragility, we can tell that if Carol does not get her way, she will break into a million little pieces, so raw and exposed is her loneliness.
Lonely city streets that Therese (Rooney Mara) inhabits mirror the loneliness, the hunger, she, too, feels when dealing with the men in her life who want to make her “theirs” yet cannot possibly give her what she yearns for. The cityscapes in which Therese loses herself play in sharp contrast to the suburban richness of Carol’s mansions and manicured lawns. Carol’s affluence opens Therese, helps her blossom and realize who she is. Mara’s performance here is revelatory, as she creates a Therese that is fully fleshed out. There is intelligence in her – thoughtfulness, youth, and longing. When she blushes, it does not look like acting; she seems beautifully moved by the circumstance of finding herself suddenly and completely desired by another woman.
Cate Blanchett is a transcendent talent. In Carol, her rich, plumy furs, the holiday red of her hat, her scarves, her perfectly-manicured nails, all place her confidence on display. There is a hushed lushness about her outfits and demeanor. The perfection of her hair is almost unbearable. She moves like a stealthy cat. She is out not just to capture this young fawn; she is out to capture us, and does. So exquisitely drawn is the scene of Carol buying a Christmas tree that we, right along with Therese, fall in love with her. I, myself, almost fainted taking in the loveliness of that scene, the tenderness. This is Cate Blanchett’s movie. Blanchett is an actress who knows how to fool us. Role after role, her regal bearing, her elegance, her “cool” leave us unprotected from the slap we get when circumstance, ill-fortune, fate take and throw her to the ground. She knows that an Amazonian warrior, dressed in strength and the luster of fancy threads breaks our hearts when her emotions are fully undressed. As Carol, icy on the outside, shattered underneath, Blanchett burns like a furnace blasting through a bank of snow. She blinds us.
The harsh truths and risks of such a love affair in the 1950s fall away. Haynes and company employ a 1950s taboo to illustrate for us in the 21st century how timeless and liberating love is and, at the same time, how little society has changed, how tragic the fortunes of those embarking on a life the world does not approve of can be. Haynes’ movie is devoid of camp; he recreates a 1950s milieu superbly without resorting to caricature and parody.