Much of the press for Carol, the new film by Todd Haynes, has made reference to the director’s influences, specifically with regard to photographers who were operating in the 1950s, the decade in which the story is set. Haynes and star Cate Blanchett have both talked about the appearance of photographs by the likes of Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier on the director’s pre-production moodboards during their junket interviews, while work by the likes of Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley and Fred Herzog has also informed the strong visual style of the film. And make no mistake: Carol is every bit as stunning to look at as we have been led to believe. Edward Lachman – working on his fourth collaboration with Haynes – successfully recreates the same impressionist style (and just as importantly the feel) of Leiter’s magnificent New York photographs at times, capturing the same flashes of street colour that help make those photographs so appealing, as well as copying the use of shallow depth of field to unlock abstract possibilities; I lost count of how many great shots there are in this drama through car window panes alone, while the decision to use Super 16mm film, so that the grain would remain visible on any screen, adds a sense of authenticity to the images (Haynes’ HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce was shot on 35mm film but the grain can hardly be seen on modern digital TVs, to the director’s chagrin). The milieu for this period drama has been created with great skill too: step forward Judy Becker, Jesse Rosenthal, Heather Loeffler and Sandy Powell, as well as the numerous make-up and hair stylists listed in the credits. Blanchett in particular looks like a silver screen siren, while the interior sets are lusciously decorated. They will have retro fetishists purring.
Crucially Carol has much more to it than an abundance of visual panache; it contains two of the better (if not best) performances of the year to date, a fine adapted screenplay by Phyllis Nagy and a stirring score by Carter Burwell, another regular Haynes collaborator. Set mainly in and around New York City and based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price Of Salt (originally published using the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Carol is a love story between two women that plays out during far less tolerant times, meaning that grand loving gestures carry their own inherent risks; even meeting in public proves problematic for the two parties here. Therese (Rooney Mara) is one, a shopgirl working in the toy department of a large store, and the titular Carol (Blanchett), whose marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) is waiting for a death knell, is the other. They meet in the store, Frankenberg’s, and we see that there’s a connection between them right away; when the confident, wealthy Carol leaves her gloves behind – perhaps deliberately – the younger, initially-timid Therese returns them. Before long they’re meeting regularly, much to the chagrin of the men in their lives, who seem comparably dim-witted and, eventually, incredibly affronted, though only Carol is made to suffer for her sexual preference. Haynes charts their burgeoning romance through a series of shared glances and brief-but-electric touches (hands on the shoulder, usually) and the sexual tension builds slowly for much of the first two acts as they become more and more familiar with each other. Carol faces custody issues, and her management of a developing situation with Harge is fascinating in itself, but it’s Therese’s character arc that intrigues the most: she grows in confidence in Carol’s presence and begins to carve out a more promising career as a photographer with the New York Times; little wonder that Carol points out the fact that her lover has blossomed near the end, and Mara creates the change just as much as the hair, make-up and wardrobe team. The slow-burning melodrama here is riveting, with both actors impressing, and Haynes, one of the most interesting and talented directors to be placed under the New Queer Cinema umbrella all those years ago, does not put a foot wrong. My own criterion for deciding whether a movie is great or not is usually nothing more complicated than weighing up all of a film’s constituent parts; does everything come together to produce a work of true artistic merit? With regard to Carol, the answer to that question is unequivocally ‘yes’.
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Phyllis Nagy. Based on The Price Of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler.
Cinematography: Edward Lachman.
Editing: Affonso Gonçalves.
Music: Carter Burwell.
Running Time: 118 minutes.