Carol is a glimpse of a faded memory; a divine reverie conjured from the depths of your gut by a familiar smell, a lilting melody, or a pensive silence. What other films may struggle to say with extended running times and expendable words, Carol achieves with very few.
The film’s nostalgic, dreamlike quality is pervasive, its beauty as beguiling as Carol herself, so perhaps it’s no surprise that an oft-quoted line from The Tempest should drift to mind: “when I waked, I cried to dream again.” Carol, like Caliban’s intoxicating island, is humming with latent energy, while Carter Burwell’s undulating score gives voice to the words that go unspoken.
When we first meet Carol (Cate Blanchett) and reticent ingénue Therese (Rooney Mara), it is the present of their story; what follows are the events that lead us to this point. The timeline is a simple, classic conceit, refreshing as it is uncomplicated, but an essential factor in establishing the lovely dreamlike uncertainty that colours this film. As Therese stares wistfully from a car window, reflecting on a memory from months ago, and then moments later, greets boyfriend Richard before heading off to work, we are initially unsure whether this is the following morning, or a different month and year altogether. An added benefit of this disorienting initial time hop is the contrast revealed between Carol and Therese as we first see them, compared with Carol and Therese when they first see each other. Although not so clumsy as to present a straightforward role-reversal of the two, Carol undeniably shows Therese’s confidence steadily grow, while dignified, self-assured Carol is gradually hampered by her husband Harge’s slings and arrows. Consequently, this lends even greater impact to Carol’s first appearance chronologically – she emerges, resplendent, into Therese’s life, not the hesitant, unhappy soul we see at the beginning, but a magnificent, captivating presence; it’s no wonder Therese is hooked.
Therese herself grows from guarded stoic to quietly confident, and emotionally matured. To achieve this subtle evolution, Carol doesn’t delve into characters’ backstories and labour pointlessly to explain their motives; it doesn’t need to. For all the surreal smooth haziness of the film’s tone, Carol and Therese are illuminated clear as day. It would be hard to imagine more tangible, fully-formed characters, but this point is essential; the film depends on their credibility. Due to the intimate focus on the two women, the film simply wouldn’t work if the audience were in any doubt of their attraction.
Put simply, Carol is a romance film – tenderness and bittersweet longing permeate every line and glance. But to box Carol in this genre would do it a disservice. Other films operating under the guise of ‘romance’ will make little or no effort to establish their leads’ desire for each other, allowing the situation, location, or the mere incident of two characters being there to do all the donkey work. Audiences will naturally fill in the gaps these films so lazily omit, on the assumption that if a man and a woman are sharing 100+ minutes of screen time together, they can’t not be attracted to each other.
Carol contains no trace of this pitfall. The nature of the characters’ match (woman plus woman) means the film can’t rest on these laurels. It’s a sad truism that since the vast majority of romantic matches we see on screen are the standard heterosexual variety, films such as this one must work to prove the authenticity of their protagonists’ affections. Fortunately, Carol is much the better for it.
Predictably, the Sapphic aspect of Carol will automatically suggest ‘sexiness’ to some, but it can’t be denied that this film is genuinely erotic – the tension is palpable, and the expression of their love is stirring. The tentative bonding of their evenings in motels – Carol making Therese up with her expensive cosmetics – has echoes of role-playing as a child, finding any excuse to be touched by your childhood crush, while their later interactions are laced with all the pain and anguish of missed opportunity.
So visually lovely is Carol that each shot could be framed – Therese sitting alone in the blue mist of a café, raindrops refracting city lights from a car window – and yet the film maintains a remarkably accessible quality by ensuring that the ‘50s clothes, music and scenery never overshadow the story. Carol is admirably substance over style, which is no mean feat when the style is this exquisite.
The framing is undeniably clever – atypical, off-centre focal points and reverse angle shots during conversations that force the viewer to subtly dart their eyes from one face to the other all help to generate an underlying feeling of nervous energy.
It seems as if the year was somehow building up to this film – we were waiting for it without realising. Just as Therese drifts untouched by her experiences, escaping satisfaction until Carol, so too did we. In the film’s final moments, you are aching for fulfilment as fervently as either of the two main characters, and the end itself leaves you as all the best dreams do: expectant, ebullient, and just seconds short of culmination.