Film Review: Carol

Written by Christopher Diggins

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Carol Plot Summary:

In an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel The Price of Salt, CAROL follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. As conventional norms of the time challenge their undeniable attraction, an honest story emerges to reveal the resilience of the heart in the face of change. A young woman in her 20s, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is a clerk working in a Manhattan department store and dreaming of a more fulfilling life when she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett), an alluring woman trapped in a loveless, convenient marriage. As an immediate connection sparks between them, the innocence of their first encounter dims and their connection deepens. While Carol breaks free from the confines of marriage, her husband (Kyle Chandler) begins to question her competence as a mother as her involvement with Therese and close relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) come to light.

The best kinds of movies are the kinds that couldn’t be anything but a movie. They don’t convey themselves solely through dialogue or the actions of the actors, but take full advantage of the visual nature of the medium. Precise camera movements, carefully framed shots, what the camera chooses to focus on and how long it lingers there, all of these elements can add so much to how a movie is told. Even a relatively simple story can be elevated to greatness through superb visual storytelling, and that’s precisely what happens with Carol.

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It may seem strange to claim a movie adapted from a book (1952’s The Price of Salt) could only be a movie, especially when it hews so close to its source’s plot, but it’s true. Director Todd Haynes has taken the essence of the story from that book and truly adapted it, reframing its sweeping prose as a visual masterpiece, where a single look or the slightest touch can communicate volumes about how two characters feel about each other. This is the best of what an adaptation can be: a true transition from one medium to another that gets across the same ideas using all the strengths of its new medium. Even the best movies adapted from other sources can struggle fully utilizing the medium of film, so to see it so deftly accomplished in Carol is a great treat.

One need only look at some of the scenes in the movie to see proof of this. When Carol’s husband Harge first meets Therese, he is constantly shown out of frame, or offset in the frame, or hidden in shadows, highlighting his disruption of Carol and Therese’s quiet moment as well as the menace he represents to their burgeoning relationship. Meanwhile Therese, here and in other scenes, is framed through doorways, meekly half-hidden and looking very small, which emphasizes her sense of isolation. That sort of technique is used to masterful effect towards the end of the movie, when Therese attends a party without Carol. With barely a word of dialogue, the scene powerfully demonstrates her intense loneliness, as she is unable to focus and sees herself surrounded by other, heterosexual couples. The movie is filled with moments like this, where subtle visual cues tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara deserve a great deal of praise for crafting the subtext Carol thrives on as well. With so much left unspoken between Carol and Therese, it is entirely on the two of them to create the film’s palpable romantic tension, and they are more than successful. Blanchett alternates beautifully between her cool confidence with Therese and the emotional turbulence that comes from dealing with her husband. Mara’s performance may be the more impressive of the two, however. Therese spends most of the movie hiding herself behind a stoic mask, but Mara is able to show the vulnerability hiding beneath that mask with great skill, making Therese a richly layered character. And when the two come together, their chemistry is electric. They subtly but visibly react to the lightest touches, and their mutual fascination with each other becomes obvious for all to see.

But despite the complexity behind its carefully crafted visuals and compelling characters, what’s most remarkable about Carol is just how simple its story is. There is plenty to read into, of course, but at its heart Carol is really just a deeply personal love story. The movie doesn’t shy away from the challenges they would face because of their love, and it’s certainly critical of the ignorance and repression they’re confronted with, but none of that is the true point of the story. The point is to chart how these two people manage to find each other just by chance, how they fall in love, how they bring out the best in each other and help them find real happiness. It’s the purest kind of love story there is, and what could be more beautiful than that?

Rating: 9 out of 10

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