In Todd Haynes’ picture-perfect design of aching mid-century refinement and repression, Carol (adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt), our titular maddening matron (Cate Blanchett) meets her soon-to-be lover/shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) in the toy department while looking for a doll for her four-year girl for Christmas. Therese convinces her instead to buy a train set. The whole film, delicately detailed and quietly chugging along, is like that perfectly constructed train set – and the characters are all there perfect in their places…until they aren’t…until their desires cause everything that was supposed to represent the American Dream in the 1950’s to derail.
Haynes and his lead, Blanchett, are firmly in their wheelhouses. Blanchett is right at home depicting a troubled woman stuck at the echelons of society in an impossibly well-do-family with a controlling husband (Kyle Chandler) and adorable little girl with impossibly WASPy names like Harge and Rindy. She was made to play this type of role, a woman of carefully controlled mannerisms hiding her repression and passions. Yet, she’s never really allowed to cut loose…and maybe that’s the point, though her coy smile in the film’s coda leaves you wondering if she finally will be able to live the life she always wanted to live.
And Haynes has perhaps hit the height of his stately cinematic refinement with his oh-so-fragile attention to period detail, set designs and costumes (my wife opined the film made her want to put on heels and a hat and walk about the city afterwards). Yet the film lacks the heart of his superior Far from Heaven and the zealously entertaining melodramatic moments that made Mildred Pierce such wicked fun to watch. All of this holding back is echoed even in the film’s score, beautifully composed just-so by Carter Burwell but just shy of his greatest work from Fargo and Barton Fink.
Though the film is titled Carol, it just as well could’ve been called Therese (as long as you obnoxiously pronounce it Tay-rez), as both women share equally in the story though they are left unevenly shaped with sparse back-story (Tay-rez is from a Czech family and alone, Carol uptight and rich). There’s always been something inherently vexing about Rooney Mara as an actress – an air about her – of both arrogance and trying too hard to make a statement. I imagine she fancies herself a chameleon – and her role here is the polar opposite of the physical extremes she took in the horribly misguided The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yet, in her reach for subtle distillation, there are mysterious extremes in her mannerisms here as well – especially her speech patterns which I found completely distracting, until about an hour through the film I realized she was doing a subdued impersonation of Judy Garland’s accent in The Wizard of Oz.
And to me it all came back to the train set. Those perfectly framed cultured women of hidden yearning, those perfectly lit New York City streets, all of those shots of Blanchett and Mara through wet smeary car windows. And that scene where Carol’s ex-lover and best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) navigates through urban traffic with the top down on her car, the women scarfed and smoking, slowly chugging along past beautiful buildings that are so real they look fake…fake like that train set…fake like Mara’s accent and Oz and everything.
Written by David H. Schleicher