Set in 1952 in New York City, “Carol” tells the story of a young photographer and her relationship with an older woman. In addition to being a beautifully told love story, it’s an extraordinary showcase for the talents of the people who made the film.
First, a bit of the story. Therese is the aspiring photographer, and Carol is the older woman. How much older is never said, but it doesn’t matter because “Carol” is a film in which the social boundaries that existed in the 1950’s dissolve in the warm waters of the love that grows between these two human beings. Age, gender, and social status are irrelevant when they meet and there’s a spark of attraction.
The two have what the late Roger Ebert used to call a “meet cute.” (How I miss Ebert!) Therese is working behind a counter at a department store during the holiday season when she sees Carol eyeing a train set. Carol sees Therese eyeing her, and crosses the store to inquire about whether or not her young daughter would like the train as a Christmas gift. Carol “accidentally” leaves her gloves behind, giving Therese a reason to contact her.
Despite their attraction, there are problems, the foremost of which is the contentious divorce through which Carol is going. Her husband, Harge, isn’t a bad guy, just a product of his times. Although financially successful, he neglects Carol for work, yet he objects when she tries to leave him. When their little girl, Rindy, becomes an unwitting pawn in the ensuing struggle, Carol’s love for and commitment to her daughter are shown to be beyond question.
Meanwhile, Therese is struggling, as many young people do, to find herself. She’s dating Richard, but puts more effort into fending off his marriage proposals and proclamations of love than anything else. She’s interested in photography, but lacks confidence, and is generally very unsure of herself. This causes her to withdraw from others, including another young man who takes an interest in her. Only when Therese meets Carol does she begin to unfold.
The heart of “Carol” is found in the performances of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, who play Therese and Carol, respectively. As the Wall Street Journal put it, they are superb.
Mara hits all of Therese’s complex notes with precision and grace, somehow projecting all of her character’s inner chaos and passion through body language and expressions that hide more than they show. It’s a controlled performance – up to the point where everything inside of Therese explodes. When that tension is released, it’s like watching a blossom open.
Blanchett delivered one memorable moment after another, whether she’s dismantling Therese’s guard with a smile that looks like it was imported from an old movie, or tearfully and fervently pleading with Harge to allow her to see Rindy. While Blanchett always performs at this level, I believe “Carol” will be seen as one of her defining accomplishments as an actress.
The same will likely be said of Todd Haynes, who directed the script by Phyliss Nagy, who adapted the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. As director, Haynes thoughtfully put together the diverse pieces that resulted in this exquisite film. The setting is seamless and understated, to the point where I had to look up to see when the story was set. There are no showy shots of streets filled with 50’s building facades, classic cars, and people wearing the clothes of the time; rather, each scene was built to evoke a perfectly realized sense of time and place, down to the camera Therese uses and the way she hand-develops her photographs.
Even the look of “Carol” suggests a different age and imparts meaning. Haynes shot “Carol” on Super 16 mm film, which gives the movie a grainy look common to the movies of that time. Rarely does a director use all of the tools of filmmaking as effectively as Haynes did here to communicate information and emotion.
Premiered near the end of 2015 to qualify for awards season, “Carol” is one of the many fine films released last year. I hope it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle because it deserves to be seen. It has the simplicity of the best love stories and the richness of a good novel, and on every level was made with an artist’s touch. Do your best to find it. It will leave you smiling and loving life.
Four stars out of four. Rated R for a scene of sexuality, nudity, and brief language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at email@example.com.