Matches made in heaven: Carol and Bridge of Spies

Todd Haynes' Carol is as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor. Plus: Bridge of Spies.

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“No Excessive Noise” reads the prominent sign in a prison yard in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the cool retelling of a real-life Cold War stand-off. It’s a warning adhered to not only by Spielberg, who knows how to increase tension without any corresponding spike in volume, but also by the director Todd Haynes in his love story Carol. There are other similarities beyond a preference for the back burner over the pressure cooker. Both show people whom society decrees should not be together undergoing a slow dawning of fascination and affection for one another. Both films function as acting duets. And both take place during an uncertain time for the world and specifically for America: the 1950s. Carol is set at the start of that decade, Bridge of Spies towards the end, with the hangover of the Second World War palpable in a light dusting of soot and instability.

Carol begins deceptively with a noirish tracking shot following a fellow along a New York street and into his favourite haunt, where he banters with the bartender. The score by Carter Burwell, laced with a snake charmer’s seductiveness, swells and swoops. Who is this man? What is his secret? It turns out that he is here to hand over the point of view of the film to two women: the petite Therese (Rooney Mara) and her older, elegant drinking companion, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Much has been written in film theory about the “male gaze” – the masculine prism through which almost every film is shot. But even before we see Therese’s work as a budding photographer, this off-kilter prologue passes the baton explicitly from male to female. It’s their story now, not his.

They first meet in a department store. Carol is buying a Christmas present for her daughter. Therese, who works there, recommends a spiffy train set. Carol agrees to have it delivered but leaves little doubt that she would also like to find Therese gift-wrapped in her Christmas stocking. The order placed, she sweeps off without her gloves. This is no innocent act. In Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail, a woman’s mislaid gloves incriminate her in a murder. In Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, a lost glove is the catalyst for infidelity and death. Here, the gloves provide a reason to meet again. When Carol takes Therese to lunch, the film’s palette of pale mints and pinks is disrupted by the plump red banquettes. The erotic charge of the encounter is deepened by the impression that the women are seated on giant, shiny lips.

Red, a colour associated with Carol, becomes a kind of contagion in the film. When Therese places a plush red sweater in her suitcase for their first holiday together, it is more than just prudent packing: she is throwing in her lot with her new identity. In a film that avoids orchestrated crescendos of incident, any moments of transformation can easily become the job of the costume department. (Take a bow, Sandy Powell.)

The cinematographer Edward Lachman is also responsible for showing how these characters are boxed in. He shoots through doorways and windows and traffic, so that we are always conscious of obstacles and interference. Watching the film can be as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor.

The nearest that the movie gets to melodrama is when Carol’s relationship with Therese antagonises the custody dispute with her estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Even here, though, Haynes and the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (the film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt) play nice. We feel the reluctance of people who have only recently survived a world war to stampede once more into combat. For all their disharmony, Carol and Harge cling to their humanity. “We’re not ugly people,” she tells him. It’s true in both senses.

Blanchett and Mara seem visibly to be enhancing and encouraging the other’s work, never more so than in the final scene, which depends for its intensity, like so much of the film, on the exchange of eye contact. Structured as an extended flashback, Carol loops back to the start. And it is true that circles, such as the train track Carol sets up for her daughter, are a recurring motif. But the film doesn’t quite conform to the circular. Though it returns to where it began, the tentative ending makes the narrative Q-shaped. That’s Q for quiet, questioning and queer.

The love in Bridge of Spies is platonic but no less electrifying. The Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has been arrested in Brooklyn in 1957. He’s going down, no doubt about that, and may even be executed but the appearance of fairness is paramount to the US government. Hence its hiring of James B Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer and a safe pair of hands, to defend Abel. Donovan is really only an intermediary. As the case gives way to a deal to exchange Abel for a US soldier imprisoned in Russia, his effectiveness as a backstage negotiator becomes vital. “We need to have the conversations our governments can’t,” he tells a colleague. The movie keeps diminishing Donovan’s place in the frame, or elbowing him off to the side, even making him ridiculous when he is mugged in sub-zero Berlin. (“How did you lose your coat?” someone asks. “Spy stuff,” he bluffs.)

This is all as playfully disingenuous as the first meeting between Abel and Donovan, which is shot against a glaring light that reduces them both to virtual silhouettes. Spielberg knows he could have Hanks and Rylance with buckets on their heads and they would still act anyone else off the screen. Bridge of Spies, which includes the Coen brothers among its screenwriters, is about the value of empathy as a defence against discord, a subject of unending pertinence. But it is also a blatant celebration of what actors do. When Donovan makes a persuasive argument in court, the judge says: “Nice speech.” He’s enjoying it as much as we are.

The genius of the casting is in the contrast: Hanks, the richly sympathetic screen actor, and Rylance, no less colossal a talent but one comparatively untried in cinema. (He has 11 films to Hanks’s 50-plus.) As an unknown quantity but also a veteran, Rylance imbues Abel with both humility and an enigmatic gravitas. His quizzical eyes are framed by horn-rimmed glasses but his mouth seems horn-rimmed, too; he has the knack of being able to smile and frown at the same time and you could run a train along the furrows in his brow. The opening shot pulls back from him scrutinising himself in the mirror to reveal that he is studying his face, brush in hand, for a self-portrait. Rylance’s mastery of stillness is renowned. Even so, I swear I saw the painting blink first. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State