From across the room, your eyes lock. Time suspends; nothing else exists: everything else is inconsequential. Though you are at opposite ends of the room, physical distance is nothing: the electricity between the two of you is sensual, spiritual, impossibly intimate, and it is as though they are already next to you, and you’ve shared a lifetime of experience. It’s existentially improbable, confounding: no one else in the entire world is closer to you, and yet you know nothing about them, not even their name. It’s terrifying; it’s exhilarating. You thought it was nothing more than a wishful literary contrivance, but now you know it is real. It is the mystery of falling in love at first sight.
One evening, on his way into a hotel’s restaurant, a young man spots two ladies sitting at one of its tables. He recognizes the younger of the two, after identifying her from only the back of her head as “Therese!” (Rooney Mara), and inquires if he will be seeing her at a party later that evening. She confirms that he will, and he proceeds to ask the elder of the two if she will be joining them. Visibly rattled, she excuses herself, citing the numerous things she must accomplish that night. In a cab on her way to the party, Therese has a flashback which illuminates her history with this woman.
During the Christmas rush, in the toy section of the 1950s New York City department store where Therese works, an elegant, poised woman (Cate Blanchett) standing in front of a train set catches her eye. She meets Therese’s gaze. A customer comes to ask Therese where she can find the restroom, and when she looks back, the woman is gone. Moments later, she has laid her gloves on the counter in between her and Therese. She explains that she has put off her Christmas shopping, and would like to buy a trendy doll for her daughter that “cries and pees,” but the store is sold out. She asks Therese what she would have liked to receive as a child, and, apparently never having enjoyed “girls'” toys too much, Therese convinces her to buy the train set: it can even be shipped to her home. It is not until the woman leaves, after turning back to compliment Therese on the Santa Claus hat she is wearing, that Therese realizes the woman has forgotten her gloves. As she has ordered the set to be shipped, she has left her contact information, and Therese is able to ensure they be sent back to her.
Grateful for her conscientious efforts to return the gloves, the lady invites Therese out for lunch. Her name is Carol Aird, and she is careful to point out that she is “practically divorced.” Though their time together is rigid and tense, the two are drawn to each other, and are quickly inseparable. Therese has a boyfriend, who has expressed his desire to marry her, but she is non-committal and evasive, telling him that it is too soon for her to commit absolutely. He soon becomes jealous of all the time that she spends with Carol, identifying it as a “crush.” Before long, Therese is visiting Carol in the intimacy of her own home, only for their time together to be interrupted by the surprise arrival of Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler), who has prematurely returned home from a business trip. Therese overhears an argument where she learns that he is expecting to spend Christmas with Carol and their daughter, but Carol is adamant that she is unwilling to do this. Carol asks Therese to join her on a road trip: she’s not sure of the destination, other than that she is heading West, and soon. Therese accepts without a flicker of hesitation or doubt, which is the final catalyst to her break-up with her boyfriend. She and Carol embark on a journey that will bring them together, and tear them apart.
Evoking a sense of romantic longing and tension akin to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, while mounted in the aesthetics of a Terence Davies film, Todd Haynes’s masterpiece Carol is one of the most romantic stories ever committed to film. Deceptively almost detached, at first, Carol‘s romantic and sexual tension slowly crescendos. That Carol is a film that initially keeps its audience at arm’s length, only to draw them in, is a formal reflection congruent to the nature of seduction itself, which the film beautifully depicts. American master Todd Haynes proves his genius, once again, in his singular evocation of tone, while also paying meticulous attention to even the smallest details, such as the arrangement of suitcases, perfectly centered in ascending order of size, by the foot of a motel bed.
Cate Blanchett has often been an actress who, while excelling in roles that require explosive, theatrical histrionics, has typically struggled to develop her characters with subtlety, so often stiff. Said stiffness works to her advantage here: Carol Aird is a woman who is deeply unhappy, and living a lie is a burden that manifests itself in her, somatically. But as the film progresses, Blanchett’s Carol evolves into a woman who is alternately fearless and vulnerable, bold and fragile: Blanchett finally masters subtlety, in her furtive glances and internal machinations. Her wistful presence in Carol‘s final frame is the crowning achievement in her already lauded career. Rooney Mara is also in career-best form in Carol, and nearly matches Blanchett’s genius as she highlights Therese’s shyness, insecurity, and uncertainty, while she builds a woman who learns to assume an assertive and confident voice, and find the courage to realize her deepest desires. Her emotional nakedness is mesmerizing in a scene where she asks her boyfriend, “Have you ever been in love with a boy, before?”
Equally restrained and ravenous, Carol‘s passion is intoxicating. The cinema is a medium famous for its incomparable, tangible evocations of romance, and while the history of film is ablaze with such passion, Carol raises a new bar.