The look of love…
He used to make bracing art-core films, but Todd Haynes and classic Hollywood style have got a thing going now.
After riffs on Citizen Kane (Velvet Goldmine), Douglas Sirk (Far From Heaven) and noir/melodrama (TV’s Mildred Pierce remake), Haynes is a perfect fit for Carol, crafted from writer Phyllis Nagy’s long-nurtured adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price Of Salt. A romance so gorgeously played its riches seem effortless, Haynes’ movie is a ravishing seduction in a vintage mould: stealthy, swooning cinema to relish.
The director’s control is clear the moment he segues from the title sequence across rainy ’50s Manhattan streets to a charged restaurant encounter: all rhyming gestures, loaded looks, suggestive words. An innocent “Likewise” drips with feeling. We flash back in time, to department-store attendant Therese (Rooney Mara) locking eyes with married mother Carol (Cate Blanchett). Attraction sparks across the dead-eyed china-doll floor: one “leave the glove behind” ruse later, love blooms.
Carol’s estranged husband and repressive ’50s America complicate matters, but Haynes avoids heated melodrama. With slow-burn focus, he zeroes in on Carol/Therese to show how love emerges from a grey backdrop to consume them, a contrast beautifully conveyed by the film’s style.
Departing from Far From Heaven’s sumptuous flushes, Haynes and DoP Ed Lachman sketch emotional currents in smoke-stained sepia with flashes of red, like an Edward Hopper painting pulsing with yearning; Carter Burwell’s score moons to their tune.
The to-die-for cast tune in too, etching character studies in fine detail. Blanchett’s full-bore charisma – total Bette Davis – nails how tough a to-be-divorced mum in the ’50s would have to be, yet she somehow taps reserves of feeling for later shows of tenderness and turmoil. At another extreme, Mara’s inscrutable reserve makes sense of a young woman trying to find herself, on alert for a revelatory return gaze through those popping eyes (she’s a would-be photographer – looking means everything here).
On the fringes, Sarah Paulson exudes savvy in the best friend role and Kyle Chandler imbues a potentially hateful hubby with caricature-busting conviction. Some jolting shocks on a Christmas road trip are the closest Carol comes to Highsmith’s twisty Mr. Ripley mode.
Otherwise, everything from a sensitive sex scene to an agonising custody battle orbits around carol and Therese’s intense attraction with an understated focus so sure, you hardly even notice its hypnotic hold until the grip releases at the sublime climax. “You’re in a trance,” Therese is told. Likewise.