After an opening credits sequence in which we follow a male individual through the streets of 1950s New York and into an indoors encounter with a female acquaintance, director Todd Haynes drops a fairly explicit reference to another film in the beginning of his new movie, Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. The film he references is David Lean’s 1945 effort Brief Encounter, oft-considered one of the great works about the intertwining of romance and repression. The reference comes through this male individual’s unfortunate interruption of a meeting between that female acquaintance, Therese (Rooney Mara), and the woman she has been listening to with such intent, Carol (Cate Blanchett). The male’s unbeknownst disturbance upon a most important meeting sees Carol make an early departure, touching the seated Therese on the shoulder as she leaves the public venue, just as Trevor Howard does to Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.
Like in Lean’s film, there is a sense that this may be the last time the pair meets, and that their precious time together has been cruelly cut short by a frivolous link to their lives outside of each other (the male acquaintance is a friend of Therese’s male beau). In what’s also a similar structural conceit to Brief Encounter, this scene will repeat itself towards the end of Carol, as what’s in between fills in the blanks, revealing what this relationship is all about. It’s a bold move to so overtly bring to mind another major romantic work at the very beginning of your own, but it’s a gambit that doesn’t see Haynes’ efforts flounder. As premature as it might be to say in a review for an initial theatrical run, Carol more than earns the right of comparison to Brief Encounter in terms of quality. Frankly, it’s one of the new great romantic films.
As can be ascertained from the prior description of the opening dynamics, Carol is a 1950s period piece that posits a relationship between two women as its central romance. When describing American films with big name stars that deal with homosexual relationships, there’s too often a tendency for film critics to suggest that the cast and director/s in charge manage to make the story “feel heterosexual and “accessible.” It’s an insulting notion that unwittingly pushes a heteronormative agenda upon any romantic work that dares to not feature a straight couple at its centre. Brokeback Mountain got it. The Kids Are All Right got it. Carol will inevitably get it (and already has in some early festival write-ups). The thinking seems to be that if a straight viewer enjoys a queer picture, the content is therefore like that of the life of the beholder, as though they cannot see beyond the small prism of their own life experiences.
Beyond the technical (lush 16mm photography), acting and directorial prowess (few can now accuse Haynes of simply operating in pastiche with this, his third 50s-set work), what is so refreshing about Carol is that the film is an unabashedly queer tale, just given a level of craft and budgetary assistance afforded to few others like it. Few rational or attentive viewers could watch near two hours of the near-perpetual longing and hunger in Rooney Mara’s eyes and believe Carol to actually be a straight text. What is so great about the film, though, and possibly what some ill-footed assessors might actually mean to convey when they veer down the heteronormative comparison route, is that Haynes, with the aid of the beautifully pitched performances of his leading ladies, conveys what it’s like to fall in love like few other films have before.
Haynes’ performers excel at conveying little character details with every minute gesture, every fleeting near-touch, every passing through a briefly shared space. When Mara and Blanchett’s eyes meet in Carol, the surge of electricity between them threatens to blow out the power in the cinema. Few films convey as well as this one the heart-spiking, pressure cooker feel that comes with the briefest of encounters (hey!) with someone you’re infatuated with, though the period of the film’s setting, and Carol’s ties to a husband (Kyle Chandler) and a daughter, means there is an inherent sense of risk and danger to their friendship and eventual courtship that obviously adds to that feeling. Love’s a gamble, and Haynes’ film is a gorgeous evocation of all the rushes and resistance the required leap of faith involves.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny, and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.