Shot on Super 16 mm film and saturated with the muted, wintery tones of 1952 Manhattan, Carol is a cinematic masterpiece. Cate Blanchett’s protagonist, Carol, is persuaded by an inquisitive shop assistant in a Santa Claus hat and a perky, red-lipped pout – the exquisitely named Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara – to buy her four-year-old daughter a train set instead of a doll. The department store where this encounter occurs, in whose cloying Christmas lighting the characters glimpse each other, sets off a trajectory of mirrored glances and ambivalent reflections over the course of the film, so that these two women flit constantly from the screen of a taxi window to the shard of a shop display in a glassy Manhattanite cityscape. Therese, during a wonderful extended motif, sharpens the focus of her little 35mm camera, and we peer through her lens to see Carol turning her head in that superb fur coat. This is a film of surfaces: underneath the graceful beauty and careful composition of their lives (woman, wife, mother, lover) in these fragile and transient veneers, something is quietly breaking.
At no point in the film do either Carol or Therese come to grief with her own sexuality. That they fall in love in 1952 is a problem imposed by exterior power structures; the scenes in which Harge, Carol’s husband (played by an ardent Kyle Chandler), attempts to take his wife in hand, are in the ex-domestic spaces of porches and front drives. Therese asks her boyfriend whether he has ever fallen in love with a man, as if the fact he hasn’t is his oddity, and his loss.
Carol is a soft and subtle powerhouse of female subjectivity and female sexuality; a way of storytelling that could not be a further cry from Hollywood trends of hyper-macho franchises and testosterone-vamped, super-snappy dialogue. Director Todd Haynes has created a narrative that is slow and calm at its most poignant moments, even whilst fraught with tension and heartbreak. ‘We’re not ugly people, Harge,’ Carol says softly in a room full of shouting men. Simply enthralling with the cool, grainy hues of the Super 16, and accompanied by a haunting swell of a soundtrack by Carter Burwell that crescendos and then repeats, this is a film that gently forces its audience into the bottleneck that is the experience of illicit love – yet it maintains a quiet dignity, and allows no release. An absolute must-see on the big screen.
Image: Gage Skidmore; Flickr.com