Carol: The Cause of It All, by David Bax
Usually, describing a movie as an “actor’s showcase” is something of a backhanded compliment. It connotes a lack of innovation on the part of the rest of the filmmaking team, a utilitarian construction the only aim of which is to stay out of the way of the lead performers. So it’s probably best to avoid that term when describing Todd Haynes’ breathtaking new film, Carol. This is not a housing for performances but rather something beautiful that has grown organically from them. Haynes has allowed his stars, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as well as Sarah Paulsen and Kyle Chandler, both terrific) to plant seeds into the soil of his film and the rest of it appears to have sprouted around them. They are of their world and their world is of them.
Blanchett, in the title role, is a well-to-do 1950 New Jersey housewife in the process of divorcing her husband, Harge (Chandler). The marriage was unable to survive Carol’s romantic affair with Abby (Paulsen), which has ended though the two women remain friends. Despite Carol’s abiding affection for Harge, her chief concern is for her daughter, Rindy. It’s while shopping in New York City for a Christmas present for Rindy that Carol meets shopgirl and aspiring photographer Therese (Mara). Returned gloves, martinis at lunch and social calls with piano playing become the accumulated clips and buckles that fasten these women together, culminating in a road trip and a new entry into the canon of all-time great cinematic love stories.
The film’s name suggests that Carol is the protagonist but the story truly belongs to both women – at times, even more to Therese. With that in mind, the title can be taken two different ways. It can be named after its protagonist, spurring you to look for the parts of the story that might define her. Or, when it’s about Therese, it can be named after the most momentous thing to ever happen to her; Carol as an event. Of course, the truth is that it’s both and more.
It may be difficult, however, to have such objective thoughts while watching the film because it’s difficult to think of anything at all from any kind of remove, so rapturously engulfing is the experience of Carol. This is a film that whispers to you so that you have to lean in closer and, once you do, encases you in its perfect bubble. Haynes’ has always been a tactile filmmaker and the cellular radiance of the world created here amplifies that effect. You can tell how it feels when a friend puts his hand on the shoulder of Therese’s structured wool blazer and you understand that it feels different when Carol does the same.
Physical contact – even a hand on the shoulder – is rare between Carol and Therese for most of the film. The connection between them forms in the eyes, the postures, the hitched or purposeful speech patterns of Blanchett and Mara. On the occasions when they do touch, it’s nearly explosive. Haynes and his stars are not ratcheting up the sexual tension so much as the longing. Carol is a movie that feels like falling in love. That’s not to say, though, that the movie avoids sex. On the contrary, when Carol and Therese do consummate their bond, it’s a thing of glory, more awe-inspiring than titillating.
Backed by Carter Burwell’s captivating and yearning score (the album could be subtitled, “Music to Write Love Letters To”), Sandy Powell’s sophisticated but earthy costumes, the colors and framing of Edward Lachman’s cinematography and the contributions of too many others to name, Blanchett, Mara and the rest of the players have built for us a world that might not bear a one to one correlation to reality but that feels like you could reach out and touch it. In fact, if you’ve ever been in love, you probably have.