The sublime, exquisitely crafted new film from Todd Haynes begins at the end. It’s an intriguing, teasing scene, denying us of true context, but laying the foundation for what will mesmerisingly unfurl over the following two hours. In an instant, the clock is wound back, in 1950’s New York, to the initial meeting of mother and wife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and the much younger shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), whose life she’ll put in a spin as their friendship develops in unexpected ways.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Carol (2015) is delicately balanced by its subtly developed main characters. Their interactions, for so long, allow them to enjoin as a fated couple, by extracting nuanced meaning out of every glance and seemingly light chatter. Rich with symbolic inferences, Phyllis Nagy’s excellent screenplay adaptation allows Haynes a lavish amount of space to move, to fill the intervals with wordless ruminations on what makes each of these unlikely prospective partners attractive to the other.
Haynes’s continuing collaboration with cinematographer Ed Lachman proves fruitful once more, with the D.P. regularly able to evoke imagery that often dreamily captures the sense of heedlessly falling into a kind of emotional irrationality that’s just as impossible to rationally contain.
There’s no lack of dimension in the way Nagy fills out the support players either. Ample time is allowed for the hapless males to make their case too, with Carol’s estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) battling his wife’s most natural inclinations to make her love him. Then there’s Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) who seemingly has their future life mapped out. He struggles painfully with Therese’s resistance once the intimidating figure of Carol intercepts his girl and sends all his ambitions astray.
Haynes has always brought the best out of his performers, especially females. Think of Julianne Moore’s extraordinary work in Safe (1995) and Far From Heaven (2002), and Kate Winslet’s equally brilliant work in carrying Haynes’s incomparable recent mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce (2011). Blanchett imposes herself on every scene even when having to allow only a glimmer of Carol’s vulnerabilities. Mara, too, is superb in a career best turn as the wide-eyed youth; a seeming vulnerability is shown to be just part of her complex character. There’s a strong-willed determination quickly rising from within as Therese embraces and surrenders to an intoxicating, freeing new definition of love that allows her to avoid victimisation.
Then there’s Carter Burwell’s score which is as finely tuned and wonderfully spotted as anything he’s ever done. He employs three plaintive ideas that are continually percolating, giving rich dramatic and musical inflection to every mesmerising stage of the women’s complex interactions. As the final, tumultuous, wordless scene stretches out, carried away by Burwell, it’s impossible to imagine this film, and all its poetic, lingering imagery without the composer’s majestically honed contribution.