Director Todd Haynes takes two excellent actresses and surrounds them with a great supporting cast and a perfectly realized world in which to showcase the performances. It feels natural to say that the best thing a director can do if he’s got a good script and Cate Blanchett is to just get the hell out of the way, but in fact the film is a rich construction that does more than just support two fine actresses, Blancehtt and Rooney Mara.
Yet it must be said that the actresses are the thing here. This quiet, thoughtful movie depends so much on what is not said, and on the pained, pensive or hopeful expressions in their eyes. The romantic tension that builds between them is tamped down by their restrictive circumstances, and both actresses, along with the director, play the slow burn just right.
The story is simple: Two women meet and feel an instant attraction. But it’s 1952, so they cannot act on it, or even speak of it. Mara’s Therese is new to these emotions—she seems to have gone through life never really considering who she is or what she wants, so she lacks any ability to navigate the unfamiliar desires and coded interactions of an entirely sub rosa gay community in McCarthy-era America.
Todd Haynes, who dealt with secrets, tensions, and the repressive culture of 1950s America in 2003’s Far From Heaven, expertly brings to live the two story tracks here—Therese’s awakening, sexual and otherwise, and the unravelling of Blanchett’s Carol as her rich husband plays dirty over their divorce. Every actor is terrific, and every character feels real. Particularly the men in the two women’s lives—husbands, boyfriends, would-be lovers—all of whom seem confused and impotent, unable to comprehend these women whose needs they can neither fathom nor fulfill.
Though the movie is told from Therese’s point of view, not that of the titular Carol, it’s Blanchett who steals the show. One subtle, perfectly played scene after another steadily adds up to a performance on the level of her jaw-dropping work in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Mara is also excellent, but Therese is a repressed character on a path of discovery, whereas Carol knows just who she is. The script gives us more insight into Carol than Therese, and thus gives Blanchett more opportunity to bring the character to life beyond the page.
I found it interesting to contrast the two actresses. Blanchett always looks like Movie Star Cate Blanchett, yet manages to seduce you into just seeing the character she’s manifesting. You know you’re watching a trick, but it’s so perfectly executed. I find Mara more chameleonic, and in her cute, prim Therese I don’t recognize The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, the unfortunate space traveler from Prometheus, or Mark Zuckerberg’s fictionalized crush in The Social Network.
In a just world, both actresses will get Oscar nominations for their work here. But the trophy will go to Blanchett, unless superficial similarities between Carol’s plights and the upper-class woman Blanchett unravelled for Woody Allen unjustly make voters deny her the award.
This excellent, moving film deserves to be seen in theaters, by the way. It’s easy to say, “Oh, emotional character drama? Wait for video,” because it’s not like there’s a bunch of cutting-edge superhero special effects on display, right? That’s a mistake—the look and feel of this film are marvelous, and watching Blanchett and Mara’s work on the big screen it was intended for is rivetting.