At one point during Carol, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mata), a department store clerk and aspiring photographer, decides that she wants to work on her portraits. This is significant because Carol is about as close to a cinematic portrait as is possible. Not only does the narrative’s camera follow Therese’s subject, Carol (Cate Blanchett), but Therese is captured by the audience’s gaze as well. This shifted power dynamic offers an interesting character study about two people falling in love at first sight. Built off of subtext, Carol’s meditative quality requires a little bit of patience, but its 2-hour run-time completely flies by.
Set in New York during the 1950s, Carol and Therese meet as Carol searches for a present for her child. There is an instant connection between the two of them and tension quickly builds. Carol is the more experienced of the two, and pushed forward their relationship, something not considered to be morally correct during the time period. While the plot’s scope appears narrow, there is so much subtlety within the film. The internalization by the characters makes the movie much more interesting than the sum of its plots. To reference another moment, the separation between what the characters say and what the characters mean is fascinating.
When two actors give such strong performances in a film, it can often feel like they are competing with one another for the audience’s attention. However, Blanchett and Mara’s strong chemistry compliments one another rather than detract. The whole film essentially rides on their ability to be reserved to their surroundings yet transparent to the camera, and they succeed in spades. The rest of the cast matches the high bar set by the lead actresses, delivering wonderfully nuanced performances. Kyle Chandler, who seems to be working exclusively in supporting roles since Friday Night Lights ended, evokes powerful hatred in the film’s loudest role, despite only raising his voice once or twice. Sarah Paulson matches this intensity, giving a master class in heated glares. And Jake Lacy’s earnest nativity tells a story that is as powerful as it is irrelevant.
The film’s period authenticity, set forward by the brilliant costuming and art direction, helps make the movie so engaging. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, helping drive home the film’s goal of making every frame a portrait. The camera movement and blocking is expertly done, lingering where necessary and invading the privacy of a budding romance. The beautiful score enhances each moment to its melancholy conclusion while never getting in the way. All of the pieces work together flawlessly.
Carol demands a lot from its audience, but it gives back much more. Director Todd Haynes nurtures a great screenplay, fantastic performances, and a whole lot of technical prowess to deliver something that is nothing short of a masterpiece. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but Carol earns it. It’s affecting without being manipulative, mundane without being boring, and important without being pandering. It truly is a miraculous film. 10/10.