In the opening scene of Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015), Cate Blanchett’s eponymous character places a hand on the shoulder of Rooney Mara’s Therese as they apparently bid goodbye to one another. The narrative subsequently tracks back to the pair’s first meeting before following their relationship chronologically. When, just under two hours later, the action returns to that same moment in context, the electricity sparking from a tumult of passion, loss, restraint and resolve – conducted by that hand and shoulder – is almost overwhelming.
Fittingly, given the source novel was penned by renowned thriller writer Patricia Highsmith, it almost plays like a whodunnit reveal; a retread of a previously seen crime with audience now in possession of the facts. Rather than the revelations of motive and opportunity, however, the understanding reached thanks to Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is of the exquisite and emotionally devastating variety. The sense of felony is not altogether inappropriate, though, given the wider social pressures.
Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, is widely regarded as a feminist classic of lesbian literature and the early 1950s setting allows precious little freedom for Carol and Therese’s burgeoning affections to be voiced in public. Indeed, they’re not voiced at all; instead they are co-conspirators, their intimacy stunningly conveyed through glances, gestures and pregnant silence. As a result, Blanchett and Mara have to be on exceptional form and they absolutely are. Both being rightly touted for awards recognition and delivering subtle performances of quiet power and moving complexity. When every look is imbued with such potential meaning, then each one must be so carefully measured. For Blanchett, that means deliberately uncovering the cracks in a perfectly manicured façade; Carol is a flash of colour, a sensual burst of self-determination whose independence is pulled from beneath her feet when her homosexual leanings are exploited by her jealous husband (Kyle Chandler). Mara’s Therese is slightly less readable, but no less fascinating – and ingénue broaching maturity and as intoxicated with Carol as the audience are with Carol.
Haynes is once again strumming on Sirkian strings here, as he did far more overtly in 2002’s Far From Heaven, but this is arguably more his own voice taking control. The command he shows of his entire canvas is superlative. Visually he evokes Edward Hopper through the gorgeous Super 16 compositions of Edward Lachman, whose medium shots echo the women’s constraint while close-up glimpses of furtive flirtations convey more genuine romance than many romance films can claim to cram into their entire durations. This is accentuated by the inherent nostalgia of impeccably realised period detail and Carter Burwell’s wistful score. Ultimately, all of these things act in the service of the two actresses on whose shoulders the film rests. As previously established, however, that’s the perfect symbolic place for such weight to rest and, when Blanchett’s hand lands on Mara’s shoulder, it provides a crescendo of such swooning, beautiful melancholy it’s all you can do to keep yourself from bursting.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson