From the very beginning of Carol, I knew I was in the hands of master filmmakers. From the cinematography to the direction, from the actors on-screen to the writing that motivates them – I was waiting for the bottom to drop out, but quickly let myself go and fell voluntary victim to the immersive, beautifully transportive quality of the film. Set in the iconographic New York of the 1950s in ceaselessly damp, inescapable puddle-weather amidst the lives of young men and women who are trying to find their way in the big city, Therese (a heartbreaking, beautifully open Rooney Mara) meets Carol (played with an intelligence and life experience that is impossible to fake by Cate Blanchett). She’s buying Christmas gifts for her daughter, and Therese quickly recommends the train-set she herself would’ve wanted as the little Tomboy she once was. The two knowingly exchange glances, and eventually, phone numbers.
The 1950s were a terrible time for women who didn’t conform, homosexuals who were openly out and housewives who simply wanted out. You were either a maid, sales-clerk, in the closet, spit on, or bored out of your mind. Carol knows a thing or two about this predicament, as she’s wasting away in the mansion her husband afforded them (a perfectly agitating Kyle Chandler) with no genuine love between the two and no clear direction out of it. She decides to give her new found fling, “flung out of the stars”, a shot. Carol is a wizened, experienced woman, with many lovers and loss and hardships behind her. She’s lived a full life. Therese is a young girl (a virgin, even) with the oh so familiar rudderless, aimless anxiety of youth shaping her day to day existence. She’s a sales-clerk, she loves photography but isn’t pushing forward with it. She’s in her head, mostly, and doesn’t communicate her ideas or what she wants to her boyfriend – not that she knows what she wants, anyway.
The two become enamored with one another. Carol sees a chance at starting over with Therese. Maybe she just loves being reminded of being young, how everything is yet to happen, and all is laid out in front of you. A life of open roads, boundless with possibility. Therese is fascinated by Carol. She’s classy, glamorous, and knows how to order in restaurants. She smokes like a moviestar and has an allure behind the eyes that’s hard for Therese to ignore. Especially when the people Therese hangs out with are a bunch of young, drunken buffoons with nothing more than the banalities of college behavior on their sleeves. It becomes clear that they genuinely love each other, but at that point it might be too late.
Carol evolves and continues in ways I wouldn’t want to summarize. It’s a novelistic film (it helps that it is, indeed, based on a novel) that treats its characters with the dignity to give them their own lives, details that shaped them, thankfully played by some of the most incredible actors of our time. The city is beautifully realized in its “pristine” 1950s quality. It’s always wet outside, Winter in New York parallels some of the emotions of the film, and the cinematography capturing these thoughts by looking through rain splattered car windows into the eyes of our characters is magical in a way that few films could comprehend. Todd Haynes is masterful at creating tone through set-design and photography, and frankly, I can’t wait to fall into this story again, by sitting in a dark auditorium and letting Hayne’s 1950s New York wash over me once more.
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