Set across the Christmas and New Year of 1951/2, Todd Haynes’ latest film documents the relationship between well-heeled socialite Carol and Therese, a young shop assistant, in less tolerant times. Visually, Haynes delivers a typically lavish experience – from the cars to the clothes, the film has been meticulously dressed down to the smallest detail. But Carol is more than just about the furs and furnishings: this is quiet, significant cinema from a master filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers.
Rooney Mara plays passive Therese Belivit, who works in a department store, Frankenberg’s, in the run-up to Christmas, where she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Soon, they lunch together: though Therese admits, “I barely even know what to order.” The besotted Carol murmurs, “What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space.”
The early part of Carol focuses on the unlikely relationship between the two. Therese has an oddly defensive stillness about her; as if she is waiting for something to happen. Carol, meanwhile, is in perpetual motion: a swish of her fur coat, a turn of her heel, carried along on restless, flickering energy. Haynes is reunited here with Blanchett – the hopped-up “electric” Bob from his Dylan biopic, I’m Not There – who conveys a kind of heavy-lidded sadness behind her immaculate movie star looks.
Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price Of Salt. Carol and Therese are described as being “like physics – pinballs, bouncing off each other.” Looking over Therese’s photographs, Carol notes, “I have a friend who tells me I should be more interested in humans.” As one character, a movie buff, declares, “I’m charting the correlation between what the characters say and what they feel” – which is very true of this excellent film.