It’s not uncommon for movies hitting the festival circuit to have hyperbolic praise leveled upon them by the initial audiences to see them. The reason isn’t exactly a mystery: festival goers are inundated with a large number of movies in a short time span, and seeing something truly good in the midst of middling indie dramas and enigmatic art films feels almost revelatory. But the reaction to Todd Haynes’ Carol isn’t hyperbolic. This is a film that’s practically flawless on every single level. There’s not a superfluous frame within Carol, not a bad performance in this love story that’s both dreamlike and heartbreaking. This is truly one of the year’s best films.
Set in the winter of 1952, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is working in a New York City department store. Therese is an aspiring photographer and is in a relationship with Richard (Jake Lacy), a young man who wishes to marry her. During the Christmas rush, Therese helps Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) pick out a gift for her young daughter. When Carol leaves behind her gloves, Therese takes the extra effort to mail them to Carol. As a sign of appreciation, Carol takes Therese out to lunch, which begins a friendship that will blossom into something more. But Carol is facing personal problems of her own. She’s in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), though he is determined to keep the marriage going. But Harge feels emasculated by his soon-to-be ex-wife, knowing of her past affair with her close friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), and will seek legal means to obtain sole custody of their daughter. Through it all, Carol and Therese grow closer and closer, especially on their impromptu journey west for the holidays.
The all-encompassing look of Carol is a wonder in and of itself. Haynes frames every shot exquisitely, with each shot telling us just as much about the situations as the plot. The initial lunch between Carol and Therese features these weighted shots that convey an intimacy between the two characters even though they’re sitting across from one another. In a scene of Therese and Richard arguing, the actors and cameras move in perfect unison, and the setting provides a natural barrier between the characters emphasizing the growing distance in their relationship. Amazingly, this majestic framing happens in almost every scene in the film.
There’s no nostalgic sheen to the look of Carol either. Shot in a grainy 16mm film stock, cinematographer Edward Lachman gives the film a textured appearance, never looking like the past is being recreated. That grainy 16mm look is aided by the wonderful production design by Judy Becker, the set decoration by Lexi Jamieson Marsh and Heather Loeffler, and the costume design by Sandy Powell.
If not for the excellent script by Phyllis Nagy, adapting the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol could be an exercise in hollow beauty. But it’s not. Not even close. Each character in Carol is fully formed, and the additional layers are revealed as the film briskly moves along from scene to scene. There’s not one moment within the film where the audience is left to ponder why a moment is included as each moment is important to the narrative and never lingers past the point of relevance. As happens with great movies, Carol is also funnier than expected with numerous moments of levity to cut the tension.
As expected, Cate Blanchett gives another stellar performances as the eponymous Carol. She speaks in a sultry tone and her eyes present the look of a woman with a past filled with pain. In what must be a herculean feat for any actress, Rooney Mara is just as good, if not better, than her co-star. Mara gives Therese the appropriate unease of a character yet to discover their true self. The two stellar actresses are wholly captivating together, and their romance doesn’t even kick in until the film is near its conclusion. All the sexual tension between the two is palpable from the film’s early frames, and accentuated with slight physical moments like the touch of a shoulder. In all truthfulness, the two leading women of Carol should each be competing for Best Actress honors at the Academy Awards, as neither is really a supporting player.
Carol is a drama of a whirlwind romance between two women in an era when that wasn’t socially acceptable, yet it never feels like it’s a film trying to inject today’s morality on its story. It’s not overstated on the aspects of the struggle for sexual identity, but simply focused on the characters of the story. It’s hard to find a film that is as brilliantly constructed from top to bottom as Carol this year or any year. Todd Haynes has crafted a genuine masterpiece of impeccable filmmaking, a film that marvels on every conceivable level. Christmas has come early for cinephiles as Carol is a treat for film lovers.