'Carol' Review: Todd Haynes' Latest Is A Quietly Powerful Drama [AFI Fest]

Director Todd Haynes often explores repressed desires and emotions. Velvet GoldmineFar from Heaven, and Haynes' other pictures share themes of what people choose to hide from the world. The conflicts their characters face are always presented with sensitivity and thoughtfulness – a deep understanding of the pain or joy in their lives. Once again, with Carol, Haynes digs deep under the skin of his characters.

Based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of SaltCarol tells the story of two women, the titular character and her young lover Therese (Rooney Mara), in 1950s New York. When the glamorous Carol walks into a room, people take notice, including Therese. The toy store clerk locks eyes with Carol as she's Christmas shopping for her daughter Rindy (Kk Heim). Their initial encounter couldn't be more mundane on paper — they talk about dolls and a train set – but it's an electric exchange. The soon-to-be-divorced Carol accidentally (or purposefully) leaves her gloves behind in the toy shop, which Therese returns to her, and thus begins their intimate relationship. Both women have feelings for each other, but for a variety of reasons, neither immediately vocalizes those emotions.

Early on in Carol, Therese and a group of friends watch Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. One member of the group, an aspiring writer, says he's focusing on the correlation between what the characters say and what they actually do. Following the writer's lead, Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy are more interested in what goes unspoken in this period piece. In general, the dialogue highlights what these characters aren't saying. When the two lovers are talking about toys or another basic subject, what they're saying isn't the point of the scene, it's what they're feeling — and the fact that they won't say what they're feeling. That's not always the case, especially in the third act, but the script and Haynes' camerawork tell a deeply observant story.

Haynes and his regular cinematographer Edward Lachman do their most restrained work to date, reflecting the leads' repressed emotions. Characters are often shown from a distance or through glass, which gets across how isolated and trapped they are. Even side characters like Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) are often framed with with distance. After Harge argues with his wife's closest friend and former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson), we only see his reaction through the glass on a front door. The camera lingers for a moment; his pain, defeat, and vulnerability more tangible from a distance than a close-up. This one frame reveals a new, more empathetic Harge.

Much of the film is shot from an almost objective perspective, but Haynes and Lachman occasionally make great use of more subjective camerawork. There's an enchanting scene of Therese watching Carol on their drive from New York to New Jersey, and the brightening of colors, the quick cutting, the shifts in focus, and the Dutch angles turn this simple drive into an utter dream. Even if you took sex out of the equation, Carol would still be an incredibly romantic film because of its emotional intimacy. For most of the film, the characters don't say "I love you," but the two lead performances, the script, and Haynes's direction say they do — and that's more powerful than having the characters say it themselves.

Blanchett and Mara are excellent. This is a very well-balanced two-hander, with both characters having their own distinct arcs. Carol needs to stay true to herself, while Therese must learn to express herself. Their journey is patiently paced, and it's difficult to grow anxious or tired watching these two performances and characters slowly reveal themselves over the course of the film. If there's one piece of miscasting, though, it's Carrie Brownstein (Portlandia). Anyone familiar with her music and IFC comedy show will be thrown off by her all-too-brief appearance. It's a mild distraction, suggesting a subplot was cut in the editing room.

The rest of Haynes' picture, shot on 16mm, is a completely absorbing drama. Carol is familiar, but this isn't Haynes repeating himself. It's been nine long years since we last saw a film from the director in theaters, but the wait was worth it.

8.5 out of 10