Carol opens with a whole lot of acting — by the two performers on screen and by the characters they play. As Carol (Cate Blanchett), a fortysomething socialite, has tea with a younger woman named Therese (Rooney Mara), we’re not quite certain about their relationship, yet we can tell there is a palpable, unspoken connection between them. Even as Blanchett and Mara are acting for us, Carol and Therese are acting for each other, as well as the people around them.
Set in 1950s New York City, Carol is a movie about pretending. This is mostly because it depicts an affair between these two women, conducted under the guise of friendship. Yet the pretending goes beyond that. Ironically elegant, Carol depicts an entire society that’s in denial about the inadequacy of prosperity, even when it comes wrapped up in all the trappings of the American dream. For all its sumptuousness, the movie understands that true contentment cannot be found by purchasing the perfect hat, getting a table at the most desirous supper club or constructing an idealized nuclear family.
Carol is set, appropriately, at Christmas, a season we’ve come to associate as much with crass consumption as spiritual joy. During an early scene, while holiday music plays inside their mansion, Carol is outside fighting with her dashing alcoholic husband (Kyle Chandler, doing Rock Hudson via Douglas Sirk). The music, too, is pretending. Similarly, when a later radio report begins chirping about the president’s “joyous” Christmas gathering, Carol turns it off in disgust.
Carol can’t change her societal status quite so easily. She is, for one thing, a creature of comfort, used to basking in furs and cruising around in a Packard. Such luxuries are not lightly tossed aside, even if the coddling they provide has proven false. And then there is the issue of her young daughter, whom her husband is using as a bargaining chip, threatening to invoke a “morality clause” if she doesn’t submit herself to psychotherapy. The only way for Carol to have a relationship with her daughter is to pretend that she can be “cured.”
Blanchett wears this falseness beautifully.
In its own pretending — in its evocation of 1950s New York — Carol is impeccable. Costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Judy Becker, art director Jesse Rosenthal and set decorator Heather Loeffler conjure an overall visual atmosphere the feels like the missing link between Downton Abbey and Mad Men. And yet, for all the refinement and sophistication, there is a mournful quality to the trappings; the lush furnishings seem to trap Carol as much as they cushion her.
Blanchett wears this falseness beautifully, delivering a performance that’s only grand when it needs to be. Carol puts on an air of sophisticated ease, but she also lives a life of furtive glances. Blanchett keeps the audience in that tremulous space in between. Mara, meanwhile, is a changeling: scared and cautious when Carol first approaches her in a department store; demure but flirty as they get to know each other; brash and confident with her friends and (doomed) boyfriend. Without you even noticing, Mara manages to shift the balance of power to Therese.
Carol is beautifully bookended by that scene of the two women having tea. By the time we return to it at the film’s end, we know exactly what part each of them is playing. What’s more, we’ve come to learn how much desire, regret and loneliness can be communicated with the slight squeeze of a shoulder, which punctuates this penultimate scene. Carol understands that even the slightest of gestures can crush.