They’re Looking at Us

Film review: Carol (Director: Todd Haynes)

By Sascha Krieger

With films like Velvet GoldmineFar from Heaven and I’m Not Here, Todd Haynes has long established himself as a master in re-creating not so distant pasts that at the same time seem close yet light-years away. On the one hand, Haynes creates detailed and realistic images of the past, on the other his atmospherically dense and visually stunningly polished time capsules that are fleeting visits from another world. His films draw the viewer close and at the same time create an impenetrable distance to the past portrayed. Carol  is no exception. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel  The Price of Salt (published under a pseudonym), it tells the story of the young would-be photographer and current department store employee Therese and the wealthy but desperate housewife Carol. They fall in love which in early 1950s America is not easy. Consequently, her relationship his quashed by circumstances – but not without leaving a silver lining at the end.

© Wilson Webb / DCM

© Wilson Webb / DCM

Haynes‘ film unfolds like a tender and sad love song that leaves a melancholy mood but also a hardly explicable smile on the lips of the viewer/listener). A main reason is the film’s real star: Carter Burwell’s music. A long-time Coen Brothers collaborator, Burwell is a master of poignant, touching, melancholy scores that create a film’s entire atmosphere through music while being memorable, simple and  often emotionally raw. In Carol, Burwell returns to the form of his 1990s masterpiece Fargo. His gently longing music is emotionally intimate and at the same time feels like a patina-covered message from long ago. It sets the tone for Edward Lachman’s camera, that drenches the film in a golden yet pale light and whose slow movements create an almost ghost-like impression. Costumes and art direction recreate 1950s New York in painstaking detail, causing an effect of highest intimacy and realism and,. at the very same time, a postcard-like quality of the past viewed from a great distances.

Quite often we see characters‘ faces half hidden behind windowpanes, often those of moving cars. Distance and the passing of time are thus visualized. Cate Blanchett, who plays Carol, looks like a 1950s movie star and yet has an ephemeral quality as if she already was a ghost, a loiving shadow, bereft of life through forbidden longings. Rooney Mara’s Therese is less mysterious, more matter of fact. Her insecurity and confusion are mixed with a quiet and growing self-confidence with Mara finely balancing the opposing urges. Next to Blanchett she pales at times but that might well be part of the concept. Carol is more than a desirable woman she is an object of longing and a broken stereotype as well.

What unfolds is a story of longing, of emancipation, of finding an identity – a decidedly female one, a topic Haynes already expertly explored in Far from Heaven – in a world that at best frowns upon it. What makes Carol special is that it is not told primarily in words but in images, colours, music. Carol  is an atmospherically dense film, a cinematic poem that needs no words. It needs eyes: Rooney Mara’s alert, hungry, defiant specimen as well as Cate Blanchett’s sad, despairing, knowing ones. That Haynes (as does Highsmith) allows the story an open, somewhat optimistic ending is not among the film’s lesser qualities. Carol tells and predicts the story of woman’s emancipation – and the prospect of a world in which Carol’s and Therese’s love has a future. They’re eyes look beyond the bubble of a re-imaginded and dream-like 1950s New York into the here and now. And they challenge us not to regress, not to undo what they suffered for. A beautiful film that has a lot to offer beneath its splendid surface, Carol is a poetic appeal for the diversity of life and its acceptance. Not exactly a topic without relevance today.


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