By: Muneeb Arshid

Super 16 mm film stock is a gauge that is going the way of the dinosaur (yes, I do mean extinct). In an age where digital projection has taken over cinemas and with 3D being the future(?), it’s nice to see a filmmaker using a projection technique that was once championed by the great filmmakers of the past.

Yes, this is indeed our review of Carol but the first thing that the viewer notices is the cinematography of the film, so I think it’s only fair that it should be reviewed first.

Let’s first get through the synopsis of the film. Carol is about Carol Aird, meticulously portrayed by the magnificent Cate Blanchett. It tells the story of how she meets with and falls in love with Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Both characters are also dealing with their own personal problems throughout the journey, but ultimately find solace with each other. Now, you may think that this is simply going to be a review of a lesbian love story; but it’s way more than that. We’ll explore the story in more detail further below but first, we return to the aforementioned cinematography.

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet and Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol.

As has been mentioned, 16 mm film is not very common anymore, with cinematographers opting for more contemporary digital projection. Both cinematographer Edward Lachman and visionary director Todd Haynes could’ve simply gone for the simple digital choice but have instead opted with 16mm for Carol, which provides a beautiful grainy, period sheen that makes it feel as if you are watching this film sitting in an old-school cinema in the 1970s. The way that Lachman focuses on the characters themselves with long takes that emphasize the facial expressions of both leads is thoughtfully and meticulously constructed. The camera work complements the way the characters move, the way they talk and interact with each other. The use of single mounted cameras in close character situations shows the versatility of how Lachman shows off the characters and their personalities. Both Lachman and Haynes have previously worked together on Far From Heaven, which was also an acclaimed film that had subject matter very similar to Carol. Haynes has become known as a visual auteur through his filmography which includes the aforementioned Far from Heaven but also Safe, a film that coincidentally also features a character named Carol.

Now, that little lesbian love story that makes up the narrative of Carol. What Haynes and his screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have done is they have taken the focus away from the lesbian aspect of the story. The storytelling flows from one scene to another beginning with the meeting of Carol and Therese, to the eventual build-up of their relationship, to the resolution of their story which is all completely wrapped together with a bow. The interactions between Carol and Therese are always kept simple and low-key, even when their relationship heats up (if that is at all possible). The direction and the storytelling made this story less a lesbian love story and more just a love story.

What makes Carol succeed even more than the relationship between the two leads is the interaction of the leads with their respective supporting characters. For Carol, it’s her story with her husband (ex?) Harge, marvelously played by Friday Night Lights alum Kyle Chandler, and her best friend Abby, played by Sarah Paulson. It’s not just Carol’s individual relationship with each of them, but the collective relationship between the three characters that drives the narrative forward. Then, add Mara’s Therese into the mix, and we get one heck of a confrontation brewing in a pot which culminates in an emotional manner at the end of the film. Carol is all about the character interplay and the story between these characters at a time when specific relationships that are portrayed would not be viewed very nicely within that era. Haynes uses this as a plot device which drives the narrative forward and ultimately drives the characters to their ultimate finality.

Image of Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird in Carol

Carol isn’t a perfect film in my mind, but the issues that I have aren’t major enough for the score to drop very much. First off, the story itself; as much as the characters are wonderfully played by all the actors and the story rattles along peacefully during its runtime, there are instances in terms of pacing where the story does become a little inconsistent. We watched the film in an empty cinema which allowed us to openly converse throughout the film. Instances, where a conversation would be warranted, would occur and there would be no loss of the plot. It wasn’t as gripping all the way through but had enough of a grasp on the viewers to keep us interested throughout. The other minor issue with the film is the score. It’s not a matter of the score being bad; rather, it is quite the contrary as the score is absolutely beautiful. The score beautifully conveys the love between Carol and Therese in a way that complements the pair’s low-key relationship in terms of the calmness and closure between the two, and the score really highlights these features. The issue we had with the score concerned the way it was utilized towards the latter end of the film. At that point, you want to watch the film and watch how the relationship comes to a head. The score instead becomes somewhat overwhelming towards that final portion of the film where it sort of takes over and tries to replace the scenes on screen and provide its own emotional push towards the end. To be fair, in some respects, it is not the worst thing in the world, since that final segment is conveyed through minute facial expressions and you become lost in those expressions which dictate where and how Haynes sees how his characters have progressed through their journey.

Haynes’ filmography may not be very lengthy, but what he has accomplished in his already-illustrious career is churning out beautifully crafted genre masterpieces that have served to elevate him amongst his peers. Audiences are left to marvel at how well he crafts his stories, even though his schedule of releases can be quite erratic (Carol came out 8 years after I’m Not There.). 

Carol is a genre masterpiece that would make a great double bill with Far from Heaven and shows that Haynes truly has an eye for creating a wonderful love story set in beautifully crafted settings. Carol gets a very respectable grade of B+ (8.2/10).