Early in Todd Haynes’s Carol some young adults are hanging out in a projection booth, watching Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd through the tiny window. They know a guy who works at the theater, and so this is a cheap date. One of them is a film buff scribbling in a notebook. “I’m charting the correlation between what they say and what they really feel,” he excitedly tells his pals. It’s 1952 and the world of these characters isn’t ready for some feelings to be spoken aloud, at least in the movies, where Sirkian subtext rules, and real people sublimate their inner melodramas behind tasteful style and hesitant conversation. It may not be representative of everyone’s 1950s, but it’s Haynes’s movieland version thereof, in which he’s slowly unspooling a relationship drama in a most handsomely decorated, elegantly styled period piece. Here repressed surfaces reveal much about real feelings held in check just underneath.
The movie is a romance, doomed by an ephemeral sense of time past, and by the subtle trembling edge of noir underneath the plot mechanics as it gets going. To communicate feelings without bringing them to the surface, Haynes uses elemental tricks of cinematic language, a shot, then a reverse shot, and we see instantly the connection made between two characters. Sparks fly in the space of a cut. We see Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman working in a department store, a little meek and quiet, but happy with her modest life. She sees across the room a striking statuesque customer. This is Carol (Cate Blanchett). They have an instant liking for each other, a slow flirtation so undetectable as to be positively subliminal. Carol orders a train set for her small daughter, carefully filling out the delivery form with her home address. After the transaction, Therese sees Carol left her gloves on the counter and decides to return them. One thing leads to another, and swiftly they have a friendship. Deeper connection happens slowly, and then all of a sudden, a rush of feelings and impulses. They’re falling in love.
Their encounter is disrupted by the realities of their lives. Therese has to cancel a trip with her boyfriend (Jake Lacy). Carol is embroiled in an increasingly messy divorce from her husband (Kyle Chandler). But it’s Christmas time, and they decide to celebrate together, heading off on a road trip. They live by night. In hotel rooms and diners they grow closer, but there’s a sense of inevitable ruin, in the way Carol’s husband sneers about her morality, and in the way Therese’s porcelain features reveal hesitance, like she’s not totally ready to give herself over to the new feelings she’s expressing. Haynes views their connection with tender sympathy, understanding the attraction between them, emotionally as well as physically. Two walled-off people, desperately alone in their daily lives despite the hustle and bustle of friends and co-workers, cautiously decide to drop their guards for each other, even if only for one momentary flash. It culminates in a beautiful sequence of connection, only to be followed by the glancing blows of unexpected tightening of obligations beyond their union.
Like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, one of the greatest of all screen romances, Haynes finds in Carol a film capable of imbuing a simple motion, like a hand on a shoulder, with tremendous emotional power. Because he’s so beautifully restrained in presenting the story’s dramatic turns, and so careful to craft characters through glimmers of interiority behind revealing gestures, he creates surfaces that shine with intense feeling, weighted with the burden of deep longing and sadness. It’s one thing to use period detail – vintage sunglasses and coats, records and Santa hats – to communicate a sense of midcentury nostalgia. It’s another entirely to convert those soft pangs of remembered history into the ache and regret over an affair ended too soon. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), it’s told as a lengthy flashback with a framing device delicately folded back in on itself. What we’re seeing is already done, a meaningful brief encounter that can never be recaptured.
To pull off this effect, Haynes needs every element of filmmaking working at a high level of artistry and in conjunction with one another. There’s no room for error in a movie whose every detail is so freighted with meaning. He pulls off a flawless unity: a rich, colorful, slightly faded look from Edward Lachman’s cinematography populated with Mad Men fastidiousness in the production and art design, while a tremulous Carter Burwell score swirls with Glass-ian textures underlining lavish romanticism and tense domestic drama. Blanchett and Mara, dressed in impeccable clothes by Sandy Powell, give placid performances, valuing stillness and inscrutable glances, the better for Haynes’s technique to fill in meaning around them, and for gestures – a drag on a cigarette, a tug on a sleeve, a touch that lingers – to say more than the characters ever could, or would. Unlike Haynes’s Far from Heaven, a more overt 50’s melodrama pastiche, or his Mildred Pierce, a more overt domesticated noir, Carol is reserved, betting on subtle inflections of drama to emerge in conflict depressingly truthful to its time, and in love wistfully fleeting.