Todd Haynes’ Carol, a stunning adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, broaches forbidden love in fifties New York, and brings to our screens a truly beautiful film that bridges arthouse and Hollywood.
We meet Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) by chance in a high-society 1950’s establishment, as a man scans the parlour and notices an old friend. We then depart from society’s judgemental eye and enter into a moving love affair, amidst a city bustling in festivity. The narrative traces back the story of their meeting: a shy and enigmatic shop assistant catches the attention of an opulent fur-coated socialite. From there we move between restaurants, Carol’s New Jersey home and finally to a trip out West, with all its promises of freedom.
Thanks to Ed Lachman’s 16mm camera, the film is imbued in a richness that permeates each scene. Over-the-shoulder shots of gazes – Therese’s piercing in their curiosity, Carol’s at once effortlessly charming but dipped in an ever-present melancholy – make for emotionally-charged encounters. In fact so many scenes in Carol hinge upon reflection or self-reflection. Whether in the back of a taxi or in a mirror, extreme close-up shots show the women suspended in thought, their faces obscured by mist or illuminated by lights.
Speaking at the 35mm screening of Carol, Todd Haynes spoke of his use of an “image book” of contemporary photography, including work by Vivian Maier and Saul Leiter, which was used during film-making by producers, set designers and actors. The result is an overarching stillness, as individuals are captured within the confines of the restrictive period society. This is particularly poignant given the female perspective of the film. Haynes foregrounds this issue from the very beginning with a daring close-up of a wrought-iron pattern, easily mistaken for the gateway of some millionaire’s property, but is in reality a sewer grille outside a subway station.
Carol enters Therese’s life at a time when she needs direction: a budding photographer frozen in the indecisiveness of her childlike existence, surrounded daily by dolls in a department store. Dressed in a combination of pale furs and a coral hat with matching nails, one of costume designer Sandy Powell’s most stunning outfits, Carol’s confidence envelopes Therese. But after an encounter with Carol’s soon to be ex-husband, Therese’s sees this confidence crumble as she fights for custody of her daughter, to whom she is denied access on account of her “misconduct”.
The legal battle that ensues juxtaposes the blossoming love affair, underscored by a script filled with wordplay and ambiguity. In the end you cannot help but be moved by the universality of the tale, which explores self-discovery and the pressures of societal convention. The film goes beyond the social norms of the society in which it is set, its complex protagonists draw attention to the small successes that tend to follow modern female characters. For this reason, Carol is in no doubt, a truly refreshing film.
Amidst festive New York scenes, Carol will no doubt leave you touched by this tale of universal love.