It has often been said that you have to love yourself before you can love another. Though much of the new film, Carol focuses upon its titular character (played by a pitch-perfect Cate Blanchett), the majority of its emotional weight rests upon the shoulders of Therese (played by Rooney Mara), whose journey from meek observer to vibrant young woman is one of the best onscreen transformations I’ve seen in recent memory.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, Carol is a love story between two women in the early 1950s. Therese is a quiet store clerk and an observer in her own life, whisked to parties by a group of shallow friends and in a relationship with a pseudo-boyfriend who is intent on bending her life to suit his white-picket fence dreams. Her life takes a turn when she meets the mysterious and intriguing Carol. Despite her charm, Carol’s life is complicated: she’s getting divorced from her controlling husband, determined to fight for the custody of her young daughter, and is, most importantly, living in a world that does not accept who she truly is. As the relationship between Therese and Carol develops, they come to complement one another; Carol urging Therese to be an active participant in her own life; Therese inspiring Carol to embrace love, fully and openly. Their relationship is tested time and time again and the sum result of these tribulations is a startlingly honest and moving film about love.
In fact, “sublimely understated” is about the best way I could describe Carol; for all its many accomplishments, it never tips toward grandiose, nor does it move to strike the viewer over the head with its message. It is simply an artful portrait of two women and a character study in the fullest sense. That being said, the film is carried upon the strength of its two main performers, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Both are sterling, delivering some of their best work to date. Blanchett’s Carol starts off the film mysterious and coy, but slowly begins to peel back the layers of this woman’s deeply unhappy life. She’s stunted, by her husband and the society around her, unable to live as she desires. Her unveiling of this to Therese is one of the film’s greatest strengths, as she shrugs off her false assuredness and reveals her true self. Completing this two-hander is Mara, who is also incredible. Her performance is so subtle that the true breadth of Therese’s transformation by the end of the film is startling, yet the character never ceases to feel real. There are no skipped steps or montages here. Therese’s growth, though slow at first, is only aided by Carol; her triumphs are hers alone and watching her develop this sense of agency and take charge of her life, especially when it comes to Carol, is beautiful to behold.
Lensed by Todd Haynes (I’m Not There., Velvet Goldmine), Carol is an utterly beautiful production. Thanks to Edward Lachman’s picturesque cinematography and Haynes’ simple, assured direction, the film is like peering into a moving photo from the period. Aided by some truly wonderful costume, art, and production design, Carol is one of the best looking period pieces I have ever seen. Yet all of this never detracts attention from the characters; this is simply the world they inhabit, another success for an already excellent film.
If you couldn’t tell from this glowing account, I loved Carol. It was strikingly simple and quiet in an age of blunt loudness (not that I don’t also love blunt loudness, but you know what I mean). However, perhaps my favorite part of the film was how normally the characters were treated. The initial, innocent attraction Therese has for Carol, them getting to know one another, falling for one another, was never treated as anything out of the ordinary (except for those who denied the validity of Therese and Carol’s sexual orientation like Carol’s husband). It didn’t matter that these were two women. They were two humans in love, something deep and true and beautiful. The Price of Salt is still considered a wildly progressive book for its time and I’d like to think Carol pays respect to the ideals it strove to present. People seem to think we’re living in a progressive age now, but recent current events seem to put that optimism in perspective. There is still work to be done, but hopefully more films like Carol are on the way, that give a voice to a large group of people that are still underrepresented when it comes to mainstream media. That being said, I have only the highest hopes for the future.