Once upon a time in America
Todd Haynes’s new film surges with suppressed emotion as he tells the tale of two women in love in the 1950s, writes
Cate Blanchett in Carol
CAROL Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Richard Cory, Michael Smith. 15A cert, gen release, 118 min The films of Todd Haynes are so richly allusive and layered they should come with footnotes. Take the very first scene in his beautiful, tricky adaptation of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s early novel concerning a lesbian romance in 1950s New York city. We open with Carol and Therese, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, having what we quickly deduce to be a final meal in a fashionable restaurant. Suddenly, they are interrupted by a friend of Therese, the younger woman, and the valedictory mood is broken. It’s Brief Encounter. Right?
The picture is built upon such borrowings and variations. The 16mm images draw explicitly from the earthy photography of Vivian Maier, Saul Leiter and Esther Bubley. Yes, Carol will be the subject of many future PhD theses, but, crucially, it surges with such suppressed emotion that the whiff of the pop-cultural senior common room will trouble only the most resistant observer.
Following that prologue, we flashback to find Therese working as a sales assistant in an upmarket department store. It is Christmas and Carol Aird, a wealthy New Jersey woman on the brink of divorce, is in search of a Christmas present for her daughter.
Therese imaginatively suggest a train set. Carol leaves her gloves behind. The subse- quent success of the present and the return of the gloves brings them to the penumbra of a romance that lights up during a drive to Chicago.
Mara cannot be faulted. Creeping into the edges of a Bohemia that was about to boom, Therese comes across as someone just yearning to have inner energies released.
Blanchett’s turn is more difficult to assess. At times, her towering demeanour teeters into terrifying pantomime camp: a little like her recent wicked stepmother in Cinderella. There’s a point to this, of course.
As the film progresses it becomes clear that she has been forced to erect a carapace between the outer world and what she movingly calls “her own grain”. Her eventual tempering grants the film’s later sections withering poignancy.
As far back as Safe in 1995 and onwards to Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, Haynes has revelled in his own divided feelings about the comfortable America – its hypocrisies and its undeniable attractions. The median shades are damper and chillier than those in Far From Heaven, but, in virtually every shot, Edward Lachman’s camera finds a striking primary colour that speaks of possibilities.
A full eight years after I’m Not There, one of America’s great film-makers has returned in galloping triumph.