Viewed by many as a Palme d’Or shoo-in, Carol sees Todd Haynes return to the big screen after his 2011 HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce. And, he’s on familiar ground with this one.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol tells the story of Therese Belivet (brilliantly played by Rooney Mara), a young department store worker who falls for married-with-a-child older woman, Carol Aird (the ever-reliable Cate Blanchett).
The drama is then shared between their burgeoning relationship and Carol’s battles with her husband (played brilliantly, as always, by my man crush, Kyle Chandler) over custody of their young daughter.
But, as you may have heard, it’s the performances that really set Carol apart. While Blanchett’s best actress snub seemed to come as a surprise to some, it’s Mara who really stands out here. Now, don’t get me wrong, Blanchett’s good, great even, but she can play a role like this with her eyes closed. Instead, it’s Mara who’s the real revelation. Sure her performance in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo earned her a great deal of recognition, but I’ve never seen her as good as she is here. She has a confidence that belies the age gap between Blanchett and herself (16 years), and her child-like innocence is just so watchable (epitomised by her heart-breaking line; ‘I’m fond of anyone I can really talk to’).
She sent welcome reminders of Lizzy Caplan’s excellent turn in Showtime’s period drama, Masters of Sex, and the similarities don’t end there. Like Masters of Sex, Carol has a clearly defined sense of time and place, alongside some wonderful period detail. They also both take a very mature approach to human sexuality. Sex is viewed as complex and worthy of study, yet both manage the delicate balancing act of keeping it sexy.
This is most noticeable during the film’s key sex scene, which is really well directed by Haynes. His sensuous camera glides over these two women, tracing their delicate curves and exploring their beauty whilst never exploiting it. He also crafts one staggeringly beautiful shot later on, using a pair of windows to create very telling internal frames.
It’s these moments of directorial flare that I could have done with more of, because the film does feel very much like the kind of worthy adult cinema so favoured by the Academy. The subject matter fits perfectly, of course, but it’s also very performance-driven, like so many traditional Oscar favourites.
Haynes’ direction even comes across as highly performance-focused. He seemingly shoots for his actors rather than for himself. To his credit, that does result in even the smallest bit parts feeling considered and purposeful. You get the feeling that he could up sticks at any moment and start following the peripheral figures and they too would have a fascinating story to tell.
‘World building’ is a term most commonly thrown around in reference to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s just as apt here. Therese and Carol’s story feels like part of something bigger and, when Haynes chooses to make a couple of (pretty considerable) narrative jumps, we really feel like we’ve missed out on something.
Carol looks like it will be there or thereabouts come awards time next year, but I kind of wish the filmmakers hadn’t been working with that in mind. Carol is an example of a film that’s so strong across the board that nothing really stands out.
Besides Rooney Mara, that is. If only we had a few more Mara’s; aiming to push the boundaries, rather than just satisfying them.