The challenge of externalizing internal emotions, of capturing the intense and complicated swirl of feelings that constitutes the inner being of a person, is one of the most persistently difficult in filmmaking.
And it is one that Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”), a master craftsman who specializes in movies of aching beauty, has perfected in virtually every shot he’s overseen in a career spanning some two decades.
Haynes’ latest, the period romance “Carol,” is suffused with such rich texture and precise detail that it plays less like a typical motion picture than a series of moving impressionist paintings, in which a housewife named Carol (Cate Blanchett) and a salesgirl named Therese (Rooney Mara) find love together amid a cold, lonely world.
Set in and around New York City during the 1950s, the movie derives its drama from the dramatic social restrictions that stand in front of these two women. It’s staggering to consider the subterfuge required to pursue their affections and the human costs — particularly for Carol, who has a daughter — are very tangibly felt.
But Haynes keeps the overt social commentary to a minimum and maintains the focus inward — linking these women of very different backgrounds together by a shared sense of imprisonment in lives that require them to be something other than their true selves.
The movie is very much concerned with the art of observation — Therese is a burgeoning photographer, the characters are often seen staring out of windows and Haynes places a premium on reaction shots as conduits to understanding the meaning behind what the characters can’t say.
It’s a journey of self-discovery, about the gradual search for happiness in a world that seems to have little of it to offer, paralleling the sudden and shocking experience of an intense attraction with the larger currents of coming-of-age that are frequent cinematic fodder but rarely rendered with the care with which they are presented here.
Blanchett and Mara, two of the best of the best when it comes to performers working today, create an intense chemistry founded on physical attraction, of course, but more importantly rooted in the most essential truth of all: Carol and Therese need each other in order to become the best people they can be.