Haynes, Highsmith, and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have an exceptional feel for the era's norms of behavior, both in their period-specificity and in their universality. Therese and Richard's relationship is stalled in the pre-engagement stage, much to Richard's consternation. He feels that he is owed something from her based solely on his marriage proposal. Her rejection, or any woman's, doesn't factor into his vision of the future, and he takes it out on her, becoming increasingly unpleasant. The staid formula of courtship-engagement-marriage to the first interested party makes it of the time while there's nothing unfamiliar about his disappointment or her wariness of taking a big step.
In the film's upper class and therefore more conservative relationship, the greatest sin is embarrassment for Harge's WASP-y family of American aristocrats. Carol becomes increasingly disinterested in any participation in that kind of life, as the worst punishment is to be around people fundamentally incapable and unwilling of articulating their feelings. The viewer enters the film past the point where Carol and Harge still love each other, if they ever did, and all that remains is his intransigence and vindictive use of their daughter as an emotional hostage. Their marriage is rooted firmly in the time before a woman could independently push for divorce, and when the husband's wants were prioritized far above the wife's, by law and by custom.
The purest relationship in the film is the central one between Carol and Therese, as worthy of cinematic immortalization as any that came before it. Carol is an easy person to be enraptured by, as Haynes never gives her a moment of deglamorization. The waifish Therese stands no chance, and more time with Carol helps her become less mousy and more assertive. She's incompletely formed, so unsure of her own desires that she just says yes to everything and wonders why in the aftermath. Blanchett and Mara have superb, understated chemistry, to the point where a look is as communicative as a four-minute monologue. In both of their corners is the indefatigable Sarah Paulson as Abby, an iron-willed rock of support able to cut down Harge's bluster with a haughty drag of a cigarette. Carol and Therese need people on their side, and Abby is the equal of a dozen.
Carol is an actor's film, but Haynes and his crew are certainly no slouches. The costuming and production design are never less than on point, and between this and Brooklyn, a 1950's NYC department store seems like a cool place to be. Haynes and his frequent collaborator, DP Edward Lachman, stress the importance of small gestures, as the general inability of characters to express themselves means these take on huge weight. A hand lingering on a shoulder, or a finger circling the disconnect button of a phone, are images that cement themselves in the viewer's brain, insignificant on their own but dripping with anticipation in the hands of Haynes and Lachman. Haynes and editor Alfonso Goncalves also break up the narrative, repeating earlier scenes from different angles, and again changing the emotional frequency from white noise into blaring feedback. Coupled with Carter Burwell's intoxicating score, Carol is a cinematic feast.
In all aspects, both artistic and technical, Carol is an affecting success despite the internal-ness of the period. The only ding is a late scene of speechifying that smacks of a lesser film, as if the earnest divorce proceedings from Mrs. Doubtfire dipped its face in meringue and shouted Hello. The remainder is top-notch filmmaking with, an immersive depiction of passive-aggressive WASP-y hells and blissful heaven, where the most treasured possession is a person that one be honest with. Haynes doesn't have a deep back catalogue, but I look forward to seeing them all. With the supreme confidence on display here, I doubt Carol is a fluke. A-