Todd Haynes’ long-anticipated “Carol,” which opens Christmas Day, may be based on a famed novel by Patricia Highsmith. But for this most infrequent and particular of directors, it feels like a personal companion piece to his masterful 2002 feature, “Far From Heaven.” In that movie, a forthright homage to the florid 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Julianne Moore’s housewife, upon learning that her husband is a closeted homosexual, begins an affair with her African-American gardener—one societally inappropriate transgression compounds another.
Thirteen years later, Haynes remains enmeshed in Sirkian tangles and straying wives, though they’re muted this time around, in more ways than one. In “Carol,” we’re still in the economic boom and sexual repression of the ‘50s, but there’s no artificially vivid flora to juxtapose the characters’ “deviance.” Haynes shot the movie on Super 16mm, which, when transferred to digital projection, looks distinctly murky, drab and futureless. It captures the world inhabited by Carol (Cate Blanchett), the unhappy, soon-to-be ex-wife of a neglectful, square-jawed New York businessman (Kyle Chandler) and mother to a young girl she’s at risk of losing in a custody battle.
But this is a Cate Blanchett character, so for a while, she keeps up appearances. Haynes dresses and films her like a sculpted Hitchcockian blonde, breathy and seductive but unraveling on the inside. She materializes as nothing short of a goddess to Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, the Audrey Hepburn to Blanchett’s Kim Novak), an aspiring photographer and humble shopgirl at a department store, whose eyes meet Carol’s across the holiday muzak and whirring model-train noises of the pre-Christmas shopping crush.
Carol is there to buy a doll for her daughter. They’re sold out, Therese replies. They chat about toys, their eyes unable to look away from each other, and Carol leaves without her gloves—accidentally on purpose—which prompts a phone call, a lunch invitation and eventually a clandestine road trip through the American heartland away from prying husbands and suitors, neither party deigning to overtly acknowledge what’s happening.
The truth is, in gradual contrast to the Sirk melodramas that influenced Haynes, not much happens in “Carol,” at least on the surface. This is such an interiorized movie that when Carol finally pulls out a gun and finds someone to point it at, we feel like we’ve just been jolted awake from a dim, uneventful trance.
“Carol” is a better movie for what it isn’t than what it is: There are no didactic LGBT mission statements a la “Freeheld,” 2015’s other age-defying lesbian romance. As a foremost graduate of the original Queer Cinema movement, Haynes is not interested in sanctimony. Neither Carol nor Therese is a mouthpiece for a movement; they are two people realizing there’s more to the Kinsey scale than the limited spectrum they’d previously explored, and for the pros playing them, there’s never a false note uttered or an inappropriate gaze sustained.
That said, when their protracted moment of intimacy finally arrives, it feels all too saleable to a straight male audience—a titillating if conventional overture from an openly gay director who had previously shunned such mass-audience concessions. The language and film grammar of “Carol” indeed makes for Haynes’ most mainstream feature, and it never reaches the quixotic risks and ludic experiments of his earlier work, from “Safe” to “I’m Not There.”
Perhaps “Carol” suffers from the fact that Haynes has already made the perfect ‘50s Hollywood homage. By fully embracing the Technicolor lavishness in “Far From Heaven,” he struck gold. “Carol” is more of a dull bronze.