Windows. Lenses. Curtains. More windows. There are layers between the actors and the audience in Todd Haynes’ Carol, some of them narrative, some literal. Haynes loves to show the gently blurred image of Rooney Mara, elfin and pensive, shot through glass. Mara, though the various award nominations (and the title) might suggest otherwise, is the star of Carol. As Therese, an early-1950s young woman with a department store job, a well-intentioned beau and a lovely little apartment, she floats through the film with wide eyes and the occasional sharp glance.
Therese’s quiet, uncertain life changes when Carol (Cate Blanchett) swings into her orbit. Haynes creates a gentle, vibrant tension in their first meeting when Therese, behind a glass counter at work, sees Carol from across the room. Carol is blonde, elegant, poised, wrapped in fur (no one has ever been as good at not letting a coat slip off her shoulder as Blanchett is in this movie). She asks Therese’s opinion on a gift for her daughter, then leaves her gloves behind. When Therese sends them back, Carol invites her to lunch and, slowly, into her life.
Haynes hasn’t directed a feature since 2007’s I’m Not There, and Carol is a gorgeously put together return to theaters. Every piece, as you expect with a Haynes film, is precisely chosen, from Carol’s striking red coat to the furniture in the Midwestern hotel rooms Carol and Therese stay in when they take off on a road trip. Next to Mara’s impossibly delicate features, Blanchett looks like someone else, her face wider, her lips pursed just so, like she’s always about to say something she shouldn’t.
Carol, which is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, is a stately dance, a studied exchange of meaningful gazes that Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy build with elegant restraint. Therese, an amateur photographer, stares at Carol like she’s an answer to all life’s questions. The pair’s long silences wrap them in an illusion of privacy; they’re just two women, out for dinner, out for lunch, on the way somewhere. Haynes evokes public isolation better than almost anyone — all that glass, all the things you see but aren’t really seeing — but this time, distance gets the better of him.
Carol isn’t entirely a love story. In the end, it’s a story about becoming who you are and stepping into the life you need to live. For Therese, Carol is an integral part of finding that life, but her arrival at that realization is so internal that it keeps the movie’s emotional impact at arm’s length. A slow, intellectual, coming-of-age romance, Carol is a stunningly filmed piece of emotionally distant art. (Bijou Art Cinemas)