Those expecting another Sirk tribute from Todd Haynes may be disappointed. Carol, like his version of Mildred Pierce before it, is a different film entirely and has more than likely been mis-sold to the public. Carol is less a film of political outrage and more a stylish and slow paced film of mood and thought.
Therese (Rooney Mara, now miles away from that disinterested turn – though who could blame her – in that awful Nightmare on Elm Street remake) is a shopgirl who does a kindness to one of her customers, mailing her back her misplaced gloves. This customer, however, is Carol, a seductive and glamourous divorcee. Carol invites her to lunch as a thank you and an attraction begins to develop between the two women before they even know it.
Early in the film, we have a character who is watching Sunset Boulevard for the sixth time and who is taking notes, his subject the disparity between what is said by the characters and what is meant or felt. A signal then to the audience that Carol will be a film of quiet, meaningful silences and yearning emotion masquerading as mundane small talk. The relationship between Therese and Carol develops slowly, the two women’s reserve as much a fact of the morals of the time as of their own fear, shyness and confusion. It is an unlikely relationship that may not initially make much sense, but it develops convincingly. Haynes keeps his camera distanced, the women frequently kept inside window frames and doorways. Kept back like this, we are always aware that the characters are a little more than we can understand – like in Sunset Boulevard, we see the front but not the mind. And, especially with the ending, we know that they will continue to exist after the film.
The characters are rarely allowed to lose their composure, but when they do, it matters. Carol’s husband, Harge, who forces Carol to stop her ‘deviance’ by taking her child away from her, loses his hard skin with an impassioned but hopeless “I love her.” The same line, slightly altered (“I love you”), similarly breaks from Carol towards the end of the film and has a truly powerful effect.
There are other times, however, where the film overplays its hand. Carol stands up to Harge and two male custody lawyers in one barnstorming scene that trespasses onto the wrong side of tacky. The Hollywood cinema of 1950s had a lot of such moments, but transplanted here it feels too jokey, too winking and knowing – as if the film has, for a moment, lost its serious veneer. The film lifts the opening and closing bookending from Brief Encounter, which works well enough while the film is playing but is quite irritating afterwards (particularly if you rewatch Brief Encounter in between – the moment in that film is perfect and heart-breaking and ought not to have been repeated). Quite why the film needed such an overt homage is anyone’s guess. Equally, the sequence in which Carol and Therese go away for a trip to Carol’s home in upstate New York literalises the idea of the ‘tunnel of love’ in a way that feels overdetermined.
Carol then is a film both quiet and intense. It is slow and mannered, as much as a means for intellectual distanciation as an expression of suppressed emotion. The final scene, while moving, is so clearly meant to make a critic write the word ‘swoon’ that it becomes as much a success of form as it does a success in character or story or emotion. Carol then is a very good, well made and moving film, but it also has a degree of practised coldness to it, a feeling of technique where honesty ought to be. It will work on the mind, and with the critics, but will it stay in the heart?