We open with a flash-forward of Carol (Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal) and Therese (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) having a low-key conversation at a restaurant. Suddenly, their conversation is interrupted by a friendly young man who recognizes Therese and wants to know if she'll accompany him to a party. Carol decides it would be a good time to excuse herself. She wishes Therese and the young man a good evening, touches Therese's shoulder and walks out. When the scene plays out again much later in the film, that simple shoulder touch has the dramatic impact of a lightning bolt. That's the power of the romantic spell director Todd Haynes weaves in Carol, the year's most achingly beautiful film.
The two women meet in a Manhattan department store, where Therese – who currently works in the toy department – helps Carol order a Christmas gift for her young daughter Rindy. After the toy is delivered a couple of days later, Carol takes Therese out to lunch to thank her for her help. There's a significant age difference between the two women (Carol is in her 40s, while Therese is in her 20s), but it's clear that some sort of connection is quickly forming between them, though only one of them knows precisely what that connection is and what it could mean.
Carol is a closeted lesbian, and once had a passionate relationship with a friend named Abby (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave), who now happens to be Rindy's godmother. Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, Friday Night Lights) is well aware of his wife's predilections, and their relationship has deteriorated as a result. Still, Harge continues to believe that there's some way to fix things, hoping that Carol will eventually decide that the stability of her family is more important than her own desires. Carol loves her daughter deeply, but that's not enough to make her love Harge – not the way a person ought to love their spouse, anyway.
Meanwhile, Therese is experiencing same-sex attraction for the first time, and is extraordinarily flustered and conflicted as a result. She has a doting boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacy, Obvious Child), though her affection for him is far less intense than his affection for her (her reply to declarations of “I love you!” is typically a polite smile). In one scene, Therese tentatively asks Richard whether he's ever been attracted to another boy. “No,” he scoffs. “I mean, have I heard of people like that? Of course. But there's always a reason. Always something in the background.” Such explanations are of little use to Therese, whose feelings for Carol seem to have come out of nowhere.
Much as Haynes' Far From Heaven was firmly rooted in the filmmaking aesthetic of Douglas Sirk's '50s technicolor melodramas (Roger Ebert aptly described it as feeling, “like the best and bravest movie of 1957”), Carol also feels like a deliberately old-fashioned piece of filmmaking. The characters don't only look like products of the era they're living in (the film is set in the early 1950s), but often feel as if they've stepped straight out of a movie made in that era. There's something strikingly old-fashioned about the way they talk and the way they carry themselves – there's almost a theatricality about it (particularly in Blanchett's performance), but this decision further immerses us in the film's world rather than distracting us from it. At no point do any of the characters in the film – even the tiniest of supporting players – feel like modern actors playing dress-up.
If there was ever any doubt, Carol should secure Haynes a spot in the very top tier of working filmmakers. This is that oh-so-rare sort of movie that only appears two or three times a year at most: a perfect film, in which every single scene feels exactly right. It's the sort of movie you drown in, immersing yourself in its endless wonders. The world of Carol feels so rich and detailed – this is the sort of movie where things as simple as the hats and coats the characters wear feel as if they've been as thoughtfully considered as the most potent dramatic scenes. Carter Burwell's music is emotionally overwhelming even by the composer's own standards, anchored by an arresting theme that fully captures the depths of the delicate romance we're seeing but refuses to tell us whether or not we're watching a romantic tragedy.
Of course, such technical virtues would feel a good deal emptier without a compelling story, but Carol is a never less than a thoroughly gripping romantic drama. There are so many cinematic love stories, and so few that manage to make your heart flutter. Carol is in the latter category, offering indelible moments of romantic discovery from start to finish. There's one scene in which Therese decides to give Carol a Christmas gift, and Carol's eyes light up as she opens her present. That moment is wonderful enough, but it's immediately topped by the sudden glow of joy that spreads across Therese's face, which had been so filled with uncertainty up until that point. This is romance told with the sort of passionate sincerity that has long gone out of fashion. The great Hollywood studio filmmakers of the 1950s didn't make movies about same-sex romance, but if they had, they would have made something an awful lot like Carol. Well, they would have tried, anyway. Far From Heaven matched Sirk at his peak, but this film might be even better.
For a while, you think you have a solid idea of where all of this is going: a forbidden romance unfolding in a disapproving society can end a number of different ways, but there are usually tears and mournful farewells involved. Haynes has long embraced old-fashioned filmmaking, but he's just as firmly resisted conventional storytelling. Carol is a good deal more complex and surprising than its premise suggests, and Haynes (working from a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, adapting Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt) never looks away from the many complications this increasingly uncomplicated love inspires.
The men of the film are supporting characters who find themselves in increasingly bad moods, but the movie doesn't treat them as grouchy stereotypes. Chandler's turn as Harge is a particularly rich piece of work; a man whose surly bitterness often comes into conflict with the fact that he still sincerely loves his wife. You want Carol and Therese to find happiness together, but you also want Harge to find some kind of peace, and you want Rindy to have a relationship with her mother. So many cinematic love triangles turn one party into a cheap villain for the sake of making our emotional investment easier, but Haynes is too humane and too honest to permit that.
Still, Carol belongs to Blanchett and Mara, both of whom are worthy of all the accolades they'll inevitably receive this awards season. Both are delivering very different kinds of performances, but they work together wonderfully, using their differences to create something that feels unique and real. There's a blatant artifice in Blanchett's performance that feels curious at first, but then begins to make perfect sense: this is a woman who's been forced to lie about who she is her entire life. Years of playing the devoted suburban housewife have turned her into an actress. On the flip side, Mara's character isn't particularly good at masking anything... every emotion she feels immediately rises to the surface, and she's far less gifted than Carol at figuring out how to channel these emotions when they arrive at inconvenient moments.
This is one of the two most moving films I've seen this year. The other is James White, which consistently assaults you with raw, unfiltered emotion. This one is moving in a much different sort of way, gently drawing you into its world, making you invested in its characters and then puncturing your heart with subtle moments of staggering power. Late in the movie, there's a conversation between Carol and Harge in which Carol's brave facade cracks for just a few brief seconds, and years of unspoken feeling suddenly come flooding in. I didn't even realize I had been crying until the scene was over. There's a more tangible connection between this film and James White, though: both make prominent use of Billie Holiday's marvelous “Easy Living,” and the lyrics take on a dramatically different meaning in each film:
Living for you is easy living,
It's easy to live when you're in love,
And, I'm so in love,
There's nothing in life but you.
In Carol, the lyrics are used to underscore a particularly happy moment in the relationship between the two women, but the fragility of that relationship adds something of a warning into the mix: if there's nothing in life but the person you're in love with, then what are you supposed to do if that person goes away? That tension fuels so much of what follows, and it works as well as it does because the movie makes us so invested in what happens to Carol and Therese. This is an intimate story about a very particular time, place and type of romance, but it will likely resonate with anyone who has suddenly been struck by the feeling that they need a certain person in their life like they need oxygen. Love, as they say, is love.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Year: 2015