Cannes: Carol review

The Patricia Highsmith novel on which Carol was based was originally published under the title The Price of Salt. That director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have chosen to use the later name for their adaptation should not suggest that this telling focuses solely on one character. This is the story of two women, entangled together in the centre of a restrained and beautiful love story.

The film begins with these two women, Carol played perfectly by the luminous Cate Blanchett and Therese by the blossoming Rooney Mara, out for tea together. Their meeting is awkward, obviously enveloped in some kind of unspoken tension. The suspense is broken when they are interrupted by a side-character, totally unaware of what they are disrupting, and thus Carol and Therese are unfortunately separated.

What follows over the next ninety or so exquisite minutes is an account of what led to this unfortunately aborted encounter.

Carol is a well-to-do married woman with a husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) who doesn’t understand her, and a daughter, Rindy, who she is scared of losing in their impending divorce. Carol first meets Therese, a “shopgirl”, whilst out buying Christmas presents for Rindy and after Carol accidentally leaves her gloves in the shop – or perhaps not so accidentally – the pair are brought together again. Before long they have embarked upon a relationship with one another.

But this story takes place in 1952, and the women are aware that society will not treat them fairly if their pairing is uncovered. The oppressiveness of this time is such that the characters can rarely relax even when they are alone.

Carol is therefore a grand romance trapped inside a pressure cooker. The women grow to lean about one another and eventually fall in love while always balancing on a knife edge. There is a constant fear that they might reveal themselves.

The greatest technical challenge that faced Haynes and his actresses in realising this story was in how to express the fullness of the love affair without explicitly showing it. Thankfully, everybody rises to the challenge and there are whole sequences where no words are spoken, characters remain relatively static, and yet everything becomes highly charged with emotion.

Haynes, working with cinematographer Edward Lachman, knows exactly when to push in close on the actresses’ highly expressive faces and when to hold back, allowing their spatial relationships on the screen tell us what we need to know. Carter Burwell’s luscious score is filled with repeating refrains that bring to mind minimalists such as Glass or Adams, and deftly guides the audience without ever becoming distracting or making any of the events on screen feel melodramatic.

Both Blanchett and Mara find minute gestures that convey their characters in detail and with sophistication. This film plays out not through dialogue but through the expressions of the leads and a certain look – or even a look away – can speak volumes. And when their eyes meet, there is so much electricity between Carol and Therese that I could almost see forks of lightning crackling across the air between them.

Carol positively aches with a love that’s yearning to break free. It’s a tender, beautiful feature, and one that builds towards a stingingly powerful climax. This tender, powerful film left me in tears, but also desperate to see it again.