When does admiration become infatuation? When does infatuation become love? Are there clear, definable lines between any of the three? What is a good, respectable person to do with feelings that come entirely naturally, yet are overlooked, misunderstood and maligned by the world around us?
These are the questions that are never fully stated yet are palpably implied by Todd Haynes’ Carol, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s breakthrough lesbian romance novel, The Price of Salt, with a screenplay by playwright Phyllis Nagy. Beautifully shot and thoughtfully acted, Carol is mostly successful in its ambition to raise the stakes of emotional honesty in Hollywood’s depiction of same-sex love stories just as its seminal source material did in 1952.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is an aspiring photographer with bold vision trapped in the form of a shy, mousy store clerk. Around Christmastime, she takes notice of a woman (Cate Blanchett) shopping for presents. The woman is elegant, beautiful and stands out from the crowd even when perfectly still.
She approaches and introduces herself as Carol Aird, and a casual conversation reveals undeniable mutual interest. Carol, as it turns out, is married with a child, but is fully self-aware of her orientation and has acted on it before, a fact that greatly distresses her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Yet for all the social, emotional and even legal obstacles that threaten the relationship between Therese and Carol, nothing drives them apart.
The constant gaze of the world on the two women is felt throughout the film. They never manage to be completely free from scrutiny, even on a road trip that is just the two of them or the first time they make love. Every character in the film finds euphemisms for same-sex attraction, something they all know exists yet are afraid to fully recognize, possibly through fear of honoring its legitimacy. Therese cannot come up with a way of describing her feelings, because the vocabulary of love in 1950s America did not evolve with homosexuality in mind.
This imprint of society’s simultaneous fixation and repulsion is perhaps the strongest component of the film, despite the terrific performances and attentive cinematography. Like previous Haynes outings, Carol is shot very similarly to the heaving, technicolor melodramas of the age it depicts, with a lush color palette and focused framing. The insertion of a modern understanding in a style of film that is inherently dated is a bold artistic statement, accentuating sociopolitical ideas while the narrative follows the love story.
There are occasional moments where the film is so committed to style that the frame feels empty, yet it is pretty throughout. Therese’s love of photography is an excellent thematic choice—it is the one place she has full ownership of her perspective—but it remains somewhat undeveloped. Several moments are robbed of their climactic intention, whether due to stylistic disconnect or feeling that the film is more from a man’s perspective than a woman’s.
However, the vast majority of Carol is an achievement in form and function, and captures emotional storytelling of the theme as well as Highsmith’s original novel.
R, 118 minutes
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