In the toy department of a busy New York department store just before Christmas 1952, two women meet. Therese (Rooney Mara) is young and wide-eyed, a shopgirl who would like to become a photographer. Carol (Cate Blanchett), looking for a Christmas present for her young daughter, is older, wealthy and, seemingly, more confident. During their brief encounter, the women click but although the simple transaction should spell the end of their relationship, fate intervenes. Todd Haynes' new film Carol, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name (originally published as The Price of Salt) tells their story.
Carol is polished, experienced and word-perfect but underneath her well-rehearsed exterior lies a woman who is afraid. Primarily, she fears that her soon-to-be-ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), will gain full custody of their daughter Rindy and prevent her from visiting. At a deeper level, however, she fears that the world will never understand whom she is nor allow her to be whom she wants to be. "What use am I to [Rindy] if I'm living against my own grain?" she asks.
Therese doesn't really know who she is or what she wants. She likes taking photographs but lacks direction. "I have a friend who told me I should be more interested in humans," she tells Carol. She has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), who wants to go away with her to Europe, but she has little interest in that. Instead, as Christmas arrives and passes, Carol and Therese go on an adventure of their own — a road trip that will have consequences for their relationship and the rest of the lives — sleeping in shabby motels in small towns in the Midwest, including — presciently, perhaps — Waterloo, Iowa.
Haynes' film is deliberate and lingering. Given that not very much happens, the two-hour running time might seem excessive in less careful hands, but with a powerful script, in which words left unsaid become more even more powerful than the dialogue, and with standout performances from both Blanchett and Mara, Carol is a cinematic treat to be savoured. These two very different actresses bring their unique talents to their portrayals of the conflict and struggle their characters face: Blanchett as the sophisticated femme fatale, Mara as the ingenue.
The detail is, of course, immaculate, especially the costumes and music. It is hard not to notice Carol's flawless red nail varnish throughout most of the film, until finally, we see her real nails; they are far less perfect. As you would expect from a film where image — self-image, appearance and the way others perceive us — is so key, we often see the characters' faces through misted windows, reflected in mirrors and captured in photographs. Carol is suspenseful, sad and really rather beautiful. Is it too early in the season to call the Oscar(s)?