Carol is a Christmas treat come early – but also a beautifully-made film that will endure. It’s an important film, not just because it’s a great love story which ends with at least the possibility of a happy outcome for two lovers, but also because it is made with such intelligence and love of cinema.
A great deal has already been written about the film and it comes complete with numerous interviews featuring its principal creators and actors so that we have a good idea of what director Todd Haynes was trying to do with Phyllis Nagy’s script. I don’t want to simply repeat what others have said so here are some personal observations.
My own reaction to the film was to be completely absorbed from the first frame. Is it really a 118 minutes long? There have been criticisms of the pacing but when each frame is so dazzling and the performances so strong we don’t need great pace as the narrative detail accrues so easily. If I had any expectations of what I was going to see they would have been about Highsmith as source material and Haynes as the re-interpreter of Sirk in Far From Heaven – both major pluses for me. The first realisation is that this isn’t Sirk. Haynes in his Sight and Sound (December 2015) interview with Ryan Gilbey suggests that Sirk takes a distanced, Brechtian view of American society in the mid-1950s, carefully using mise en scène to ‘display’ the structures of the middle-class world of the country club with bright colours and expressive lighting. By contrast Carol plunges us into a much murkier environment as the stills above demonstrate with their muted palettes of browns, greens and pinks. Often the characters are shot through rain-spattered windows, round corners and down corridors. The mise en scène constrains and traps the characters and we are ‘immersed’ in the narrative. This isn’t to suggest that the image is visually impoverished in some way. Sandy Powell is in charge of costumes and both the leads wear the clothes well. I’m going to have to watch Carol alongside Brooklyn to think about the different use of costumes for the same setting in time and place.
Carol is set very precisely over the Christmas and New Year period of 1953/3 with Eisenhower preparing for his presidency. America is still in the last days of Truman’s post-war recovery. The deadening conservatism of the affluent Eisenhower years critiqued by Sirk is still to come. Haynes’ partner in the visual project is his regular DP Ed Lachman (who was with him on Far From Heaven and the remake of Mildred Pierce for HBO). Lachman gives a fascinating account of his preparation for shooting Carol in a Variety interview. In particular, Lachman reveals the importance of a number of New York photographers of the period, shooting in colour. I spotted the obvious Edward Hopper homage but I didn’t know these photographers. One is Saul Leiter who died aged 89 in 2013. The image below shows the kind of shot which clearly influenced Lachman and Haynes.
Lachman reveals that:
. . . we actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists. A large part of them happened to be women, people like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and then later Vivian Maier. These were photographers who were starting to experiment in colour. So that gave me the idea of trying to reference a visualisation of, let’s say, early Ektachrome, rather than Kodachrome, rather than colour negative. And that’s why the colours have this kind of coolness/warm mixture. I play with magentas and greens. The colour didn’t have a full spectrum the way colour is seen today.
I’ve tried to choose some images with bright reds from these photographers, partly because the vibrant reds of 1950s Technicolor/Eastmancolor melodramas are still there in Carol – and they stand out much more against the muted palette of the streets and rooms. Lachman and Haynes also decided to shoot on Super 16 filmstock, again in order to downgrade the bright colours of the Sirkian melodramas and to re-insert the grain which in modern digital photography can be artificially generated but never looks right. I did find the first few shots of the film disconcertingly grainy but I soon forgot about that. The screen in the cinema we attended was relatively small and I’m intrigued how the images would have held up on a bigger screen.
It should be apparent by now that as a visual narrative, Carol works superbly. The music works pretty well too, Carter Burwell’s score and the collection of early 1950s songs work to bring out the emotion of the different scenes. (You can find a list of the songs here.) Overall, I would call Carol a romantic melodrama. I found the romance completely convincing and the last scene stands alongside Nina Hoss in Phoenix as the ‘closing scene’ of the year for me. Both Blanchett and Mara say everything with their eyes – just like Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
Carol is still a melodrama and it’s also a ‘woman’s picture’. If it wasn’t for the ‘out’ lesbian affair, this could be a Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford picture with the husband who wants to take her daughter away from her as part of the divorce settlement and a ‘female best friend’ to talk things through with. Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband ‘Harge’ (a name I’ve never heard before) is suitably ‘solid’– a very masculine figure who uses his heft in confronting Carol. At times he reminded me of Jack Carson who played a rather different role in the original Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. Cate Blanchett plays Carol as a physically powerful woman, emphasised in some of the shots of her lying on a bed in those quite close-fitting early 50s dresses. She contrasts well with the slight and sensitive Rooney Mara as Therese.
Carol is more than just an updated, ‘modern’ version of a 1950s romance. The film couldn’t have been made in the early 1950s and now it has been made it puts Patricia Highsmith’s narrative firmly in the spotlight, demonstrating what is possible when talented people work with the best material and a real sense of purpose. C’est magnifique!
Here is what is in effect an ad for Varese Sarabande Records the company releasing the soundtrack. It gives a good indication of how the music creates a mood and how the cinematography described above works in practice: