Carol is a slow-burning seduction, expertly orchestrated by Cate Blanchett who paves the way in the art of subtlety. It’s the acting that carries Carol, Blanchett’s waspish intensity simmering with Rooney Mara’s cool innocence, the unapologetic gazing, ear-brushing, lip-pursing passion playing out in the backdrop of classic 1950’s glamour. It is, at its heart, a tale of tragic honesty rendered so by the context: same-sex love is fixed, ever-so succinctly, as a morality clause.
The fragility of their relationship is demonstrated in their delicate flirtation and, unfortunately, the laboured pace of the story. It opens with a prologue, following a nameless man into a hotel, where he notices Therese at lunch with a beautiful woman: Carol. Their lips move, but all dialogue is mute. The man loudly interjects with an exclamatory “Therese!”, dissolving the tense tête-a-tête. Carol departs, leaving Therese with an expression of indecisive longing. Despite this scene’s intention to compel the audience’s investment in the plot, the following sloth-slow pace is a sore point for me, used more to contextualise the moral-climate of the film than stay true to the characterisation. It contradicts Carol’s vivacious, sporadic nature and does so at the expense of Therese, who is rendered bland, complacent, and even a little dull.
This is where my main gripe rests: what does Carol see in Therese? Their polarised personalities do not logically inspire a fatalistic relationship. Aside from Therese’s doe-eyed infatuation with the tremblingly erotic Carol, they seem drawn to the other by their differences, in age, finances, social-standing, personality and even looks. Throw into this toxic cocktail Carol’s husband who is still besotted with her and a child-custody case, and the film is poised for Shakespearean-esque gold, but lacks real punch. In moulding Carol to be the focal personality of the film, the juxtaposed Therese becomes an improbable cog in the machine; a bystander that such a woman could not desire let alone make sacrifices for, even with all of her ‘cool innocence.’
Here, the acting both helped and hindered the script. At times Mara portrayed Therese as an unflinching, well-matched lover, one which the more emotionally unpredictable Carol could rely on. At times, she came across as naïve; the pawn of Carol’s whims. Blanchett’s understated Oscar-worthy performance lifted these inconsistencies, especially in the scene where she voices, with exhausted conviction, that she can no longer live a lie at the expense of her own romantic and sexual happiness, even if such denial gives her constant access to her daughter. The tug-and-pull of Carol’s desires, not just for Therese but for the life she wants for herself, legitimised the character contradictions, paralleling the complexity of the protagonist with the complexity of the issues the film was dealing with. Ultimately, this is what saved it for me.
Well, this and also the sets, props and cinematography. The costumes were divine, the actresses unafraid to rumple their hair and tarnish their make-up thanks to Todd Hayne’s insistence that they were acting real people, not dolled-up divas. Through the lens of a Super 16mm, a revitalised option for shooting films traditionally used in the 1970s, Carol is visually authentic, the colours rendered pastel, subdued, but ever-so beautiful. The artistry of the film also ties into an overarching theme of it, with photography used as a prop in Therese and Carol’s relationship.
Carol is worthy of the feverous fanfare the film-industry is investing in it, but not for the script; for the endlessly subtle eroticism that Blanchett brings to Carol, which leaves not only Therese mesmerised, but the audience too.