Can a film about crushing loneliness and isolation still be what critics used to call a “sumptuous” experience? Todd Haynes’s Carol is as prim and curlicued a movie as a Fifth Avenue window display at Christmastime—and ensconced beneath just as much glass. There’s no doubting the film was financed as an awards-season vehicle for the reaffirmation of Cate Blanchett as one of the great doyennes of acting. But beyond the machinations of “how exactly did this downtempo lesbian period piece get made?,” Haynes leaves his audience precious little to figure out for themselves.
Carol’s main draw, then, is to luxuriate in the pining shared by the film’s blueblood namesake (Blanchett) and a bashful clerk from Frankenburg’s named Therese (Rooney Mara)—a pining which, in buttoned-down postwar America, can also look and feel an awful lot like being trapped. The connection doesn’t build laterally toward any long date scene, illicit kiss, or even their inevitable first night in bed together. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy largely refuse such facile signposts, preferring to stretch the narrative along Therese’s gaze, forcing viewers to engage both Carol herself and Therese’s at-times vaporous idea of Carol.
Their first eye contact is furtive, entrancing, and severed too quickly—and clumsily—to be mistaken for anything else. Carol strikes up a conversation with Therese over what to buy her daughter, Rindy (Kk Heim), for Christmas, “carelessly” dropping her gloves at the department-store checkout counter for the shop girl to return. What follows is lunch, then romance—albeit under sustained, heavy, and, for the most part, un-verbalized duress.
Even if Therese has never before been in love like this, Carol ultimately stands to lose a lot more given the desperate strongarming of her bustering ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Meanwhile, Therese’s boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), appears on screen solely for the purpose of spewing aghast indignation at every step she takes away from their courtship, which Haynes telegraphs as half-hearted and awkward from the jump. Richard’s characterization can’t help but bring to mind 1950s put-downs like “palooka” and “galoot,” but this failure of imagination may be less Lacy’s than the filmmakers’.
On the other hand, when Richard tells Therese he wants to marry her, all she can do is smile back dimly, like he’s speaking in another language—and this is a shrewd, oft-repeated disjunction that points to the paradox underpinning Carol’s every move. Knocking the film for being stiff means criticizing its stifling Eisenhower-era milieu. Harge is the story’s persisting villain, but Chandler’s every last squint adds complexifying subtlety: He’s the latest in a long run of stellar supporting turns from the actor, embodied with the swaggering entitlement of a would-be patriarch, only for his eyes to glisten like a hurt little boy’s whenever cinematographer Ed Lachmann’s camera finally gets up close and personal. Even if the baroque, neo-Sirkian affectation of Haynes’s Far from Heaven is long gone, swapped for a fine-grained modernist flatness in Super 16mm, the same fault lines of uneasily projected identity and subsequent, bitter disappointment remain.
Just as Patricia Highsmith saw fit to publish The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, Nagy’s loose adaptation attunes itself expertly to the very real dangers staring back at Carol and Therese. Carol isn’t even a love story; it’s a tenuous chronology of two characters striving to get a love story started. If Therese represents a psychic channel for Haynes’s newfound naturalism (wide-eyed underacting as a symptom of an underexplored self), Carol is, at times mannered within inches of self-parody—vampy, even, and at apparent deliberate odds with the considered void surrounding her.
The difference matters less and less as the film reaches its twist ending, because the acting in those scenes—the ones they chop up and play back, with a surprisingly committed awkwardness, at Oscar ceremonies—is every bit as show-stopping as the film’s pedigree would have you believe. Stem to stem, Carol dares its viewers to consider that—for a couple of hours, at least—even when a thing seems too good to be true, it might not be.