There are two things that Carol severely lacks: depth and belief. Both are vital for just about any movie, but for a character-driven drama such as this their absence turns what should be a beautiful romance into a banal, foggy haze of missed cues and tedium. It’s an achingly long experience filled with on-the-nose dialog and a desperate dearth of subtlety; Blanchett and Mara invest their characters not with a rich inner life but bland and empty gesture, as if each were given a character sheet with three traits and neither bothered to expand upon it. These are people who fall in love because the plot demands it, fall apart for the same reason, and spend the entirety of their screen time at the absolute mercy of the strings of screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.
Which is a shame, because on its surface Carol is technically a great movie. The art direction, costume design, and attention to detail are all absolutely stellar, creating at first glance a world that feels less like a 2010s imagining of the fifties and more like the real deal. Director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman keep the frame largely cold and detached–shooting in 16mm to add a layer of grit between spectator and spectacle. It’s a far cry from Haynes’ Far From Heaven, which took its visual cues from Technicolor Douglas Sirk weepies. Instead of the warmth and resonance of that picture, Carol absolutely relishes in its coy distance, keeping a line between itself and the past observed.
Although interesting, it’s this distance that ultimately dooms Carol. By not providing any ins to its characters, Carol keeps us relentlessly on the outside, preventing us from forming any actual attachment to those that live within its confines. This is a problem compounded by the screenplay, which dissolves the interior monologues that filled the Patricia Highsmith novel the film is based on into tepid and forgettable dialog. Blanchett’s Carol is a beautiful older woman; Mara’s Therese is a waif-like shopgirl; neither of these characters particularly care to evolve into anything more than those stereotypes, and the fact that the supporting cast indulges in playing at even blander ones (the jilted husband! the jealous boyfriend!) creates in Carol a world of plastic and cardboard–not unlike the department store toyland of dolls and trainsets that Mara’s character works in. I don’t believe that any of these characters could be real people, I don’t believe in any of the awful lines that they say to each other, and I certainly don’t believe that any of them could ever take an interest in one another, considering just how little there is in each character to take an interest in ourselves.
At one point, Kyle Chandler’s character murmurs to the titular character that she is “always the most beautiful woman in the room,” perhaps an apt summary of the central thesis behind the entire production–but dammit, we came here to be engaged as an audience, not merely to worship at the altar of the beauty of Blanchett, and Carol‘s absolute refusal to go any deeper than that transforms the experience into an exercise in frustration. Sure, it may be a beautiful world that appears enticing on the outside–but its core is ultimately hollow and lifeless.