With two outstanding central performances, and a complex human story at its core, Carol is the cherry on top of a stellar past year for queer cinema – next stop, the Academy Awards.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Queer cinema has enjoyed a rich purple patch over the last 12 months, from showcasing embattled lovers in Freeheld to highly-acclaimed home-grown memoir Holding the Man – but none are as deeply affecting or as gorgeously crafted as Todd Haynes’ period masterpiece, Carol.
Based on the novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol is the story of a young shop assistant, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who meets an enchanting married woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) whilst working in an upmarket Manhattan department store. When Carol later invites Therese to lunch outside of work, the two begin to foster a charming companionship that starts to get tongues wagging among their friends, family and peers. As Carol’s marriage to neglectful husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) turns sour, her friendship with Therese advances into romance – and the two embark on a fateful Christmas road trip to escape the prying eyes of the city.
Fronted by two astounding performances from Mara and Blanchett, Carol is a delicate character drama that takes the time to paint an ornate portrait of two star-crossed lovers. Both have landed nominations for a Best Actress Golden Globe, and it’s easy to see why. On the one hand you have Mara, an introverted and intelligent aspiring photographer who is discovering an entirely new side to herself; on the other you have Blanchett, a confident and elegant housewife who carries herself with an air of confidence designed to disguise an underlying vulnerability.
Even though it starts out in the simplest of ways, Carol and Therese’s relationship grows to become a lot more complex and treacherous, allowing both actresses to showcase the very best of their talents. Blanchett oozes presence in every scene, but for me it was Mara who stood out; we see the story from her perspective, so we witness her delicate and heart-wrenching character arc firsthand. Carol remains something of an enigma, whilst Therese feels authentic and more emotionally resonant.
Penned by Phyllis Nagy, the screenplay keeps proceedings tightly focused on the lead duo, often at the expense of supporting characters; Richard (Jake Lacy), a long-term boyfriend of Therese is swiftly discarded in the second act without a backward glance, whilst Chandler draws the shortest straw of all; his role is reduced to a two-dimensional caricature of an emotionally-distant husband, when his messy divorce to Carol could’ve been afforded much more depth.
We are thrown a few curveballs that keep the divorce subplot ticking along in the background, but Carol and Therese’s burgeoning romance takes centre stage fairly early on. Thankfully, it never feels exploitative or needlessly raunchy.
A delicate score from Carter Burwell blends classic orchestral strings to perfectly compliment tracks from artists like The Clovers, Jo Stafford and Billie Holiday. Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography also lends this film a soft, classic romance look. Along with Haynes, the two play around with focus and depth of field to create some particularly striking frames.
So much more than your typical doomed love tale, Carol pairs two of the finest actresses working today with a script and director that know exactly what they want and how to get it. Flawless craftsmanship and stirring performances make Carol a powerful experience that deserves go the distance come Oscar night.
Carol is available in Australian cinemas from January 14th
Images courtesy of Transmission Films