Carol, the latest film from Todd Haynes, is unyieldingly admirable in almost every way that matters in the construction of great cinema. The screenplay, adapted by Phyllis Nagy from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, is meticulous and thoughtful, spelling out the conflicts of the main characters in a determined, empathetic fashion. The performances evidence an equal amount of care. Maybe more than anything, Haynes’s directing job, heavily abetted by the cinematography of Edward Lachman, is the sort that can be studied for decades, held up as the embodiment of the way that images can be framed and finessed to tell a story through their agonizing attention to thematic detail. If it feels like all this slightly abstract praise is leading to a mighty caveat, I must admit that it is. For all its many, many merits, Carol is also chilly and tidily bloodless. It hits every tone with precision, but it never really sings.
Set in the nineteen-fifties, the film tells the story of a forbidden romance. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works the counter of a posh department store. In the run-up to Christmas, she encounters a posh, refined woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett), shopping for a gift for her young daughter, although fully open to being intrigued by less material offerings. Gradually, the two fall into an affair, depicted more as elegant ache than riotous passion. In a way, Haynes is returning to the territory of what remains his pinnacle achievement as a filmmaker, Far From Heaven. With this outing, however, Haynes is less invested in capturing a florid emotional authority meant to roughly approximate the issues dramas of the era in which the film is set. Instead, he means, so it seems, to pitch his film toward piercing drama, set in an era long past, but meant to offer parallels to the roiling social anxieties of today. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the different approach, even if it does ultimately contribute to keeping the film locked in a safe idle.
The relative safety of the film doesn’t mean that Haynes has rejected all manner of complication, locking his creativity into a mode of staid security. He’s too complicated a filmmaker for that. Carol is scored with enlivening friction, most notably in the intriguing divide between the sterling lead performances. Blanchett plays Carol with a fluctuating pulse of stylized confidence, adopting a snap of mild artifice that adds jarring depth to the moments of more direct, forceful emotion that she’s called upon to play. Against that, Mara opts for an icy stillness that gives way to quiet tumult, conveying her character’s journey while simultaneously reinforcing, more clearly than anything else in the film, the way that society prevents her from being her whole self. It is a performance that invites a fervent examination of its deeply embedded clues, thusly providing an potential entryway into the deeper treasures of Carol. Finely honed as his vision may be, Haynes isn’t a warm enough filmmaker to completely find his way to a satisfactorily compelling vision about passion, even the repressed kind. Luckily, he’s also a thorough enough craftsman and astute recruiter of collaborators that he can enlist those, such as Mara, who will help bridge the distance he can’t quite cross on his own.