For all the remarkable technical advances in cinema in the past few years – digital here, computer-generated imagery there, 3-D seemingly everywhere – there are some films that cry out for a traditional approach to film-making. It’s especially true of those that evoke a specific period in the past.
The recent Brooklyn, set in Ireland and New York in the early 1950s, had a warm, lustrous glow about it that enhanced its romantic, emotional story. And now here comes Carol, from the same period, set in America, and tracing the progress of a taboo affair. Carol may not be quite the year’s best film (though it’s a contender), but it’s certainly the most ravishing to gaze upon.
Related: Read David Gritten's review of Brooklyn
An illicit affair that rocks lives
The formidable Cate Blanchett takes the title role. Her Carol is a wealthy housewife with a low, husky voice, a sardonic manner and an innate sense of style. (The film’s costume designer is Britain’s world-class Sandy Powell.)
She has a sophisticated air, but her remote, assured manner is jolted when she meets Therese (Rooney Mara, from The Social Network), a young shopgirl in a Manhattan department store around Christmas-time. The slightly timid Therese looks adorable in her little Santa hat. Carol places an order, forgets to take her gloves with her (perhaps by chance, perhaps not), Therese gets them returned to her at home, and Carol comes back to the store to seek her out and thank her. It’s the prelude to an affair.
In 1952, of course, society regarded such matters with less equanimity than today, and the relationship rocks both their lives. Therese cools her romance with her slightly dull boyfriend, while Carol, already separated from her controlling husband (the excellent Kyle Chandler), now battles him for custody of their young daughter.
There’s a confidence about this film that is rooted in its origins. Its story has been splendidly adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the novel The Price of Salt, by the brilliant Patricia Highsmith, who was always capable of analysing human behaviour with a surgeon’s precision. And Carol is directed by Todd Haynes, who has form when it comes to taboo relationships – his triumphant 2002 film Far From Heaven (also set in 1950s America) dealt with an interracial romance.
A film that gets under your skin
We’re invited to find society’s reaction to the lovers’ passion narrow-minded and judgemental, yet the film itself is relatively conservative, depicting their affair with elegant restraint.
And one genuinely feels for this apparently mismatched couple – their feelings seem destined to tear them apart and ruin their lives. Both Carol and Therese spend much of their story unhappy, yet they share a helpless mutual longing that makes Carol intoxicating.
It’s the kind of film you find yourself pondering for days afterwards – it can get under your skin. And while I wouldn’t dream of spoiling anyone’s pleasure by revealing the story’s outcome, I’ll say this: the final scene -- wordless yet beautifully self-explanatory – is a masterpiece. It’s a classy, understated touch that is all of a piece with the entire film. Highly recommended.
Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.