Director Todd Haynes has a tendency toward the hyperreal, from the boldly colourful throwback melodrama Far from Heaven, to the evocation of the psychedelic 60's in the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. His latest film, Carol, based on the novel The Price of Salt written by Patricia Highsmith, has a similarly heightened approach to its early 1950's period setting; it is a sublimely lyrical film in its construction and framing, but it may also be the director's most naturalistic, understated and earnest work.
Cate Blanchett stars as the titular character Carol Aird, a confident yet playful woman who approaches the department store counter manned by Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) looking for a Christmas gift for her daughter. Their chance meeting, during which Carol leaves behind her gloves, begins a deliberate, searching courtship between the two, and Therese finds herself in the middle of Carol's crumbling marriage and custody battle for her four-year-old daughter Rindy.
Carol cannot simply be relegated to the niche of "queer cinema." While it does deal very frankly with queer themes and the fluidity of sexuality in a sensitive and thought-provoking way, at its heart it is a romance. Its recurring opening scene, a scene of quiet devastation, refers (whether intentionally or not) to David Lean's immortal Brief Encounter, one of cinema's most enduring love stories. There is no weight of political conceit behind Carol.
Everything about the movie evokes a profound intimacy - not just Edward Lachman's soft, delicate cinematography that navigates the cramped spaces of Manhattan apartments, bars and motel rooms, or the liberal use of pensive close-ups, but even the film's remarkable score by Carter Burwell, using spindly harps and weaving clarinets creates a palpable sense of the small, barely there moments that make up the film. The sharply heightened undertow of feeling created by the film's construction and performance comes through so strongly that you can almost feel the rumbling of excitement in the pit of Carol's stomach after her first real connection with Therese.
The quietude of the film is navigated beautifully by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Mara's waifish, but brightly intelligent Therese is the perfect foil to the hard, shining performance from Blanchett. Both leads are phenomenal in their own way, bringing to life a screenplay that is full of ambiguity and things left unsaid to its fullest potential. It's to the credit of the supporting cast, including Sarah Paulson as Carol's former lover Abbey and Kyle Chandler as her estranged husband Harge, that they are not overshadowed by the two powerhouse lead roles.
Ironically for a period film based on a novel more than half a century old, Carol is a refreshing and modern film. It is a visually stunning, as well as profoundly moving - even shattering - piece of cinema that is gripping from its first moments. Composed as painstakingly as a beautiful piece of music, and played with every ounce of feeling its players could muster, Carol is one of the finest romantic dramas to grace the screen in years.
Carol is distributed in Australia by Transmission Films and opens in cinemas on Thursday January 14.