More now than ever, a story like the one Todd Haynes tells in Carol feels like ancient history, not so much because LGBTQIA rights have burgeoned — America’s closets are still pretty crowded — but because people like the story’s two women in love have an easier time finding community and each other.
Haynes’ mellow drama is a pleasure to watch and engage, although he does seem to think his clichés will deconstruct themselves. Spoiler alert: They don’t. No doubt Haynes (Far From Heaven) and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained true to the furtiveness of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel. But I wonder: When things like this happened to people half a century ago, did they really not talk about it, even in their most private moments?
The reticence that can produce tense drama can also leave us frustrated, and Carol often feels like a story from its era, which it is, rather than one about its era, which I would rather it be. It gently bludgeons us with its ideas about society’s post-war shroud of conformity and the havoc it wreaks on those who can’t conform.
The titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) — blond, elegant, reserved — is married to a man (Kyle Chandler) from a privileged family, and they have a young daughter. Some years earlier, Carol had a relationship with a woman whom she’d known since childhood, and with whom she still maintains a close friendship. Her husband knows what happened, and he’s generally (but not completely) satisfied that it’s over.
Then, while shopping at Christmas, Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara, suitably somber, as always), a diffident young mannequin-like department-store sales clerk with an affable boyfriend (Jake Lacy). You know what happens after that.
Haynes tends to favor the extremes of his visual options — ponderous long shots or emotional close-ups — and a few times, he plays with our desire to hear things said. When Carol weeps in a bedroom, Therese puts a hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Cut to the roof: “Is there any sense in fighting it?” Therese asks. And we think: At last, they’re going to talk about desire. But Therese means the restraining order that stops Carol from seeing her daughter.
The acting in Carol absorbs our attention, although like Nagy’s dialogue, and Haynes’ coy (mis)direction, the performances sometimes feel too sophisticated. And while the men might not seem especially worth thinking about, Haynes constructs them well: They’re not bad people, and they’re struggling to understand things themselves. The reliable Chandler has rarely been better, and Lacy is as charming as he is clueless.