I’ve watched Todd Haynes’ Carol twice now. While I liked it better the second time — and think I misjudged one aspect of it the first time — I’m still not on board with the lovefest over it. Oh, it’s a good movie, and it’s an appealing work on many levels. Certainly, it’s gorgeous to look at in all its glorious 1952-period detail and tastefully burnished color, all enhanced by Carter Burwell’s musical score. The mannered, classical look of the filmmaking itself is a treat. Moreover, Rooney Mara’s performance is a delicious blend of unworldly naïveté and her understanding more than the era and her background should deem possible. And then there’s Cate Blanchett haughtily — and effectively — sailing through the film with the kind of movie star chic quality we don’t really see much of anymore. (I think that affects a lot of the acclaim the film has gotten.) She walks into the frame and, effortlessly, just takes over. But … there’s still something missing here for me. Carol stirs my intellect and my aesthetic sense, but it never really touches me emotionally. That’s a significant drawback for what is essentially a soap opera — a cerebral, classy one, with a lesbian angle that gives it a different slant, but still a soap opera (that is not a slam).
The first time I saw the film, my reaction was that it was Todd Haynes making another ersatz Douglas Sirk-Ross Hunter 1950s soaper, much like he did with Far from Heaven back in 2002. (That, in itself, isn’t entirely fair to Far from Heaven.) And I think that was wrong. It doesn’t really look like one of those generally over-lit 1950s movies. It has its own look — that of a movie taking place in 1952, not of a movie made in 1952. But, more to the point, the tone is different. There’s no sense of mocking the audience the way there is in the Sirk movies, no sense that the filmmaker feels superior to the material. And there is certainly no glitz for its own sake. Carol is more akin to the work of John M. Stahl (some of whose films Sirk remade) in the 1930s: straightforward and honestly believing in the material. I like that. I admire that. I only wish it connected with me more emotionally than it does.
Carol is adapted (by Phyllis Nagy) from a novel, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, which was Highsmith’s imagining of what might have been had there been any follow-through after a moment she shared with a shop girl in a department store. (That is a pretty romantic idea for a book.) In the film version, we’re introduced to Carol Aird (Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Mara) when they’re meeting at the Ritz late in their story. At this point, the significance of what we see is unclear. The film then returns to their first encounter in the toy department of a high-toned store around Christmas time. The two women are obviously attracted from the onset — something that is allowed a follow-up since Carol accidentally (?) leaves her gloves behind on the counter. What follows details their romance, which will ultimately take us back to that first scene (at which time all the nuances of that scene become clear) and beyond.
What distinguishes the film from a standard romantic drama is that it’s a tale of same-sex romance that’s taking place in a world far removed from our own — a world where such a relationship was barely even talked about. That means that not only is everything couched in code and insinuation for the world at large, but the two women are cagey even with each other about their desires. The nature of the flirtations and the courtship is fascinating, yet always recognizable for what’s going on beneath the surface. But something about it keeps me at a distance (and, no, it’s not just the somewhat trite divorce-and-mother-love dramatics that are used to propel the story). The truth is the only time I really felt anything was at the film’s ending — which is one of the finest things I saw all year — and I only wish I felt that way about more of the film.
So, am I recommending Carol? Oh, yes. It’s too well-made to ignore, and it may connect more deeply with you than it did me. The performances alone (with the exception of Jake Lacy, who is now three-for-three with me for performances even Geppetto would find wooden) make it worthwhile, but there’s more than that to it. That it didn’t quite achieve greatness for me is a letdown, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Rated R for a scene of sexuality-nudity and brief language.