Many marriage courses like to emphasize the importance of hands in a relationship. Often taken for granted, hands can reveal a lot about people. They can signify a couples’ bond when held together, or be subtly used in a flirtatious way to indicate attraction. Clearly the significance of touch is not lost on Todd Haynes, at least if his latest film Carol is any indication.
From the opening scenes, featuring Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) dining at a restaurant, Haynes’ lens takes a seductive approach in its observations of the hand movements in the film. At first it is not clear what stage of the relationship the viewer is witnessing. Their uncomfortableness is evident, especially when an acquaintance of Therese unexpectedly interrupts them; however, there is an undeniable spark between them. Haynes shows this through the subtle gesture of Carol softly running her hand across Therese’s shoulder blade while simultaneously exchanging pleasantries with Therese’s male friend before leaving.
Therese’s reaction – a delicate mixture of ecstasy, longing and uncertainty – is echoed a short time later when their hands touch during their first meeting at a department store. It is moments like these that make Carol such a mesmerizing romance. Haynes takes his time in building Carol and Therese’s friendship and eventual relationship. When the pair first encounter each other both women are already involved in rather complicated relationships with men. Therese, who aspires to be a photographer, has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), who has cheated on her repeatedly. Despite his claims of wanting to marry her, Therese seems to be with him out of convenience and not love. Infidelity has also played a role in Carol’s crumbling marriage, though it is her affairs with other women that are to blame. Going through a bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler), and with the custody of her daughter at stake, Carol begins to find solace in the younger Therese.
As the two women grow closer, they discover the hard way that following one’s heart often comes at a price. As the threat of losing her daughter becomes more of a possibility, Carol must decide whether her relationship with Therese is worth the potential sacrifice associated with it.
Todd Haynes is one of the few directors who consistently strives to present well-round female characters onscreen. Individuals whose depth and complexities match those of the audience rather than traditional stereotypes frequently conveyed in film. He takes his time when it comes to letting the central relationship grow, like a gardener in a picturesque greenhouse he ensures every pedal is delicately handled. As Carol and Therese’s romances slowly blooms, the audience feels themselves evolving as well. The viewer cannot help but root for the pair to find a way to make their complicated romance work, despite knowing that there is no certainty that they will. It is this beautiful, but honestly somber, approach that allows Carol to reach the same emotional heights of the great cinematic romances of the past.
Utilizing the 1950’s as its backdrop, Carol carries the same classic Hollywood aura as Haynes’ film Far from Heaven, especially in regards to its lush visuals. However, the director is not content to merely rest on his laurels, instead he manages to give the film a truly universal feel. Carol is more than a “lesbian romance” as some will no doubt foolishly label it. Similar to Brokeback Mountain the film is a love story in its purest form. Every gesture, glance and roadblock they face packs an emotional punch.
Blanchett and Mara give outstanding performances as Carol and Therese respectively. They bring rich layers to their characters which make them more than mere types. Blanchett does a wonderful job of playing a woman who is confident when it comes to her sexuality, but insecure in the other aspects of her life. On the flipside, Mara brings a nice mixture of uncertainty and passion to Therese, a woman who does not know what to make of these romantic feelings she has never truly felt before.
Offering a rapturous exploration of a relationship that has as much to lose as it does to gain; Carol is a bittersweet romance that audiences will surely fall in love with.