Carol ★★★★½


Ranked: 2015

The theme of forbidden love is so often used as the driving force in romantic films as it allows for conflict to arise, decisions to be made and for the plot to develop, but rarely, if ever, has the topic been treated as earnestly or as delicately as it is in Carol. As a result, the film proves to be nothing short of an understated revelation, with Todd Haynes' masterful direction alongside some truly outstanding acting work from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara bringing to life a tender story of love and attraction that makes Carol unquestionably one of the best films of the year.

Set in New York City in 1952, the relationship between young shopgirl Therese (Mara) and the glamorous titular character (Blanchett) begins to develop after a chance meeting at the department store in which the former works, and it is clear from the start that there is a strong, if yet undefined spark between the two of them. They begin to see more of each other as the strong affection they hold for one another begins to take hold, even though Therese has a boyfriend who is keen to make her his wife and Carol is currently going through the divorce process with her soon to be ex-husband, Harge. The subsequent path in which they both choose to embark on is not one of convenience and is instead motivated by the innate feelings that neither are able to shake.

What is significant about their relationship is that at no point throughout the film is it truly defined, with the words "gay" or "homosexual" never being used despite the interactions between the pair evolving into one of a deeply romantic and sexual nature. What Carol is, more than a gay or lesbian story, is a story about love, and how strong feelings of attraction can arise between two people who might not otherwise have expected it. There is no desire on the film's part to put a label on the relationship the pair develop, as what is truly important is what it means for both of them rather than that it is called. This notion is reflected by Therese's decision to pursue her new love interest with some abandon without questioning why a supposedly straight woman could fall for someone of her own gender, and her intense feelings for Carol means she allows herself to just go with the flow somewhat. This is an aspect of her personality she later berates herself for ("I always say yes to things"), however, as it potentially allows for negative consequences.

Therese's innocent outlook on love is juxtaposed by Carol's greater experiences on the subject, acquired both through her failing marriage as well as an alluded-to brief affair with her friend Abby, but to the film's credit at no point does it feel like the much-younger Therese is being exploited, nor does it feel like Carol is looking for a younger woman mainly for sexual or carnal reasons. The pure genuineness of their relationship is one of the most special things about Carol, with the organic nature of how they fall in love feeling so incredibly honest despite the taboo and controversy it would have caused at the time, but nor does it feel like the film is being too on-the-nose about the subject either - the love between them feels so real that characteristics such as their respective ages and their gender begins to fade into insignificance. This is a story about two people, firstly and lastly, and that's all that really matters for the characters and for the audience as well.

The screenplay is adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt", which was written during the time in which Carol is set, and burns along at a slow pace that allows Therese and Carol's budding romance room to breathe and grow naturally. What works so well is that pinpointing when or where either character crosses over from being simply attracted to one another to feeling something far deeper and more meaningful is practically impossible, with their love feeling true to life in that it develops slowly over time rather than one moment or interaction acting like the flipping of a light switch. There are no grand gestures or over-exuberant declarations of love, and as a result the romance between the pair - and the entire film as a whole - feels all the more touching, heartfelt and rewarding due to the grounded nature in which the screenplay adopts.

Going for a more restrained approach in the script means there is then more of an onus on the actors to tell the story through their performances, and to say that both Blanchett and Mara deliver in doing so would be one of the most criminal understatements one could say about Carol. The pair portray an electric and sensual on-screen connection and their incredible chemistry elevates the entire story to great heights, whilst both manage to convey so much through a subtle yet purposeful use of facial expressions, body language and line delivery. Haynes' direction shows complete confidence and assurance in his lead actresses, with numerous close-ups and narrow shots allowing for each flicker of an eyelid or twitch of a lip to feel significant and as a gateway to each character's inner thoughts and feelings.

The directing, acting and screenplay are all supplemented by the Carol's gorgeous aesthetic, with the 16mm film in which the movie was shot and some sumptuous and intricate costume design all adding to the authenticity the film boasts. Carter Burwell's score works throughout as it manages to enhance the emotions felt on screen whilst mirroring the acting in its restrained style, never feeling too intrusive at any point. In all honesty there is nothing significant about Carol that is even average, let alone bad, and as a whole every aspect merges together in such a seamless and effective manner that it might just been the most solidly made film of the year. However, what makes it more than simply being a well-crafted movie is the way in which its central romance begins to unfold, with some award-worthy acting, directing and writing making Carol one of the most arresting and moving romantic films made for a good number of years.

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