Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland | Written by Phyllis Nagy | Directed by Todd Haynes
Hype at this time of year can become an overwhelming and overbearing thing, taking a film you could be looking forward to and loading so much baggage onto it that the whole thing falls apart, while you feel like a dog howling at the moon as you try and tell people how it’s really not all that; Carol feels like a perfect candidate for this. Getting awards buzz since its first screening in Cannes, based on a book by acclaimed author Patricia Highsmith and starring two previous Oscar botherers in the lead roles, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and directed by a man who has been on the fringes of big awards for years, Todd Haynes, this has the makings of a film which could either thrill or brutally disappoint. It’s lovely to say its emphatically the former.
Carol is a film which in decades hence would have been seen as unconventional and full of provocation but here we have a classily made film about two women in love during the 1950’s which isn’t full of resounding speeches or evil forces trying to sustain the status quo. While Carol’s husband Harge (a wonderfully melancholy Kyle Chandler) provides dramatic impetus, even he is a rounded, three-dimensional character who hurts because he himself has been hurt, even to Carol’s admittance.
This is a film full of longing, regret and joy fully played out by Blanchett and Mara. From the first moment they look at each other, there is a connection there but it isn’t full of heat and the chemistry between the two isn’t particularly sexual, rather it genuinely feels like two lost souls finding a home in each other. While the film’s certificate tells of “infrequent, strong sex”, the film itself doesn’t dwell on this; other than their first night together we see nothing really but then the interest isn’t in that and the material that is there is far more satisfying.
Mara is fantastic as a girl who has friends and a lot of male attention but still seems to feel at odds with the situation she has found herself in. Her realisation that she is falling for Carol is played with a sense of intrigue about it, she wonders quietly if Carol feels the same while Carol fairly burns for her in return. Blanchett is as good as her top form has ever been, playing Carol with the slightest sense of desperation but never once allowing the character to wallow in it and become melodramatic. The connection between the two is so strong that the final ten minutes produces the most heart in mouth moment in cinema since Whiplash, a tour de force of questioning and potential heartache which recalls Brief Encounter and matches it for emotional resonance.
Aiding the skill in the performances are the film’s superb technical aspects with Carter Burwell’s lovely score wafting through the air of the snowy Christmas time setting managing to be both uplifiting and depressing in its differing variations. Edward Lachman’s 16mm cinematography is also a sight for sore eyes, the grain in the image really connecting with the setting and the muted colours helping to conjure the wintry feel of the setting and story. Couple this all with Haynes’ unshowy direction which just lets all the elements come together to work perfectly and you have one of the year’s very best films which absolutely lives up to the hype on it.
Carol is in UK cinemas now.