If you like restrained, gorgeously shot films about forbidden romance and yearning, then Carol is the film for you. Director Todd Haynes’ Eisenhower-era romance stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as two non-hetero city girls, living in a binary world. (A Brokeback Mountain comparison wouldn’t be entirely inapt). Blanchett, whom I haven’t always loved (that phony coughing in Benjamin Button — she can be one of our most actressy actresses when badly directed), is mesmerizing here, with hair so perfect it could hush the room at a drag-queen party. (Reportedly it was a wig, and, if so, it’s the Sistine Chapel of wigs.) The curls, the pearls, the gloved hands lighting cigarettes pulled delicately from art-deco cigarette cases — you can sense Haynes geeking out over every sumptuous pattern and antique detail, to the point that the story is almost secondary. It’s probably the most tasteful romance ever filmed.
Blanchett plays Carol Aird, an idealized, unattainably elegant department store dream of ’50s housewifery. It’s in a department store, in fact, that she meets Therese — pronounced te-REZ; it’s Czech — played by Mara, a clerk who sells Aird a toy train set for Carol’s daughter after talking her out of dolls. (Neither of them liked dolls when they were little, why should Carol’s daughter want one?) It’s all a subtle seduction, Blanchett smirking and predatory, Mara her usual bug-eyed innocent sea bird. Carol needn’t be subtle, though, being as she’s the James Bond of aspirational femininity. Have I mentioned she’s a supernova of pure refinement?! Every girl wants to be her and every guy wants to be with her, with Therese checking both boxes.
Carol is an interesting character, because in a way she’s everything a woman of her era is expected to be — mother, cook, impeccable decorator and glamorous fashion model — yet, because of her sexuality, she’s hyper-conscious of being trapped in this plasticized domestic prison. Which of course turns she and Therese into a sort of Space Age Thelma & Louise. If only they’d shoot some people.
They each have their respective balls and chains, Blanchett’s in the form of an estranged husband played by Kyle Chandler (a guy named “Harge Aird,” a lacrosse name if ever I’ve heard one); Mara’s by way of an overzealous sorta boyfriend played by sentient mandible Jake Lacy. You can sense both guys would make great husbands under different circumstances, both hopelessly in love as they are with these two beautiful, independent women who can’t quite love them back no matter how hard they try. This drives Chandler’s character to do terrible things, and if you’ve ever been in a semi-unrequited love affair, you might identify with his fury more than you want to. In those moments, Carol is almost a horror film, seeing familiar feelings refracted through an era that didn’t teach boys how to empathize with women, only to make gallant, usually patronizing gestures.
Even then, it’s an incredibly tasteful horror film (with frequent pops of red into which those inclined could surely read all sorts of symbolism). But there’s a downside to the tastefulness, especially to those of us who revel in the tasteless. Carol and Terez just sort of yearn and yearn and yearn (on lesbianly in the friscalating dusk light), the whole thing so relentlessly elegant that it’s kind of suffocating, like being locked in Liz Taylor’s perfume closet. Even when they finally do get it on, they’re wearing complementary plaid flannel pajamas like some hyperdramatic softcore window display at Montgomery Ward. It’s a little much. A little too aspirational. They’re so in love that they could spoon forever, and no one would ever get sweaty or have their pinned arm fall asleep! A sour note, one out of place hair, would’ve gone a long way.
A bigger problem is that yearning and unrequited love, while dramatic in the most traditional sense, have a sense of inevitability here, and I’ve never gone in on romanticized inevitability. Restraint is great for production design, but restraint in story can be become a lid on possibility. I can be patient for a carefully-built world, especially one as meticulously executed as Carol‘s, but only as long as you maintain the expectation of surprise. Carol starts to lose that toward the end, crawling toward a somewhat expected resolution. And then it starts to feel like being lightly pummeled with beautiful antiques. The majesty of the surroundings becomes slightly diminished, like being stuck at the museum just a beat too long. Helluva museum it is though.
Grade: Two and a Half Jello Molds Filled with Pearls.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.