There’s a fleeting moment near the midpoint of the film in which we observe our young heroine addressing a gift to her new friend. In this brief frame, one can notice the words, ‘To Carol, From Therese’, written with a careful hand, not once, but twice. She inspects her second attempt, naively believing that the slightest flaw may deter her potential lover. Minutes later, upon receiving the present from Therese, Carol pays the card no mind and briskly proceeds to unwrapping the gift.
In an era where romance in film is largely attributed to exaggerated displays of affection or wholly unrealistic situations, it’s this attention to detail - the realism in the actions of its characters - that make Carol a triumph.
A period drama set in the 1950s, the film explores the relationship between Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a shopgirl and aspiring photographer, and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an elegant, older woman going through a difficult divorce. Their interactions highlight the differences in their personality, with Carol being a woman of assurance and eloquence, whereas Therese is indecisive and impressionable. In an early scene when the two are having lunch, Therese - shy, intimidated, and perhaps, rather infatuated - can barely hold Carol’s gaze, taking every opportunity to avoid doing so. Her constantly shifting eyes, hurried responses, and nervous laughs, exhibit more affection than her willing conversation ever could.
Both Blanchett and Mara give terrific, largely understated performances. The former, who provides her character with an aura very few actresses could match, has a scene with her husband (Kyle Chandler, excellent) that serves as a devastatingly emotional moment, particularly poignant in a film whose characters largely keep their feelings close to their chest. Mara, given far less to work with dramatically, gives Therese complexity and purpose, captivating in a role where she is at once knowing and naïve.
Carter Burwell’s haunting score, accompanied by Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography, offer some truly tender and introspective moments. Todd Haynes’s impeccable direction, and Sandy Powell’s costume design, complete a quartet in which all of whom may well have offered the year’s best work in their respective fields.
All of these individual successes sum to an insurmountable whole - a coming-of-age tale where the character development matters more than the conflict stunting her growth; contrast the aforementioned lunch with the closing dinner, Therese’s gaze now stands firm, her words carefully chosen and delivered with meaning. It’s evident the young, impressionable girl Carol once knew has grown into a mature, independent woman.
A classic tale of forbidden love, but rarely do we see it afforded this level of care. A bildungsroman, but rarely are they as cohesive and resolute. Carol is a masterpiece.