A lustrous, deeply felt love story set against the backdrop of societal oppression in the early 1950s, "Carol" is the stirring unofficial companion piece of 2002's aching, dreamily autumnal, Technicolor-rich "Far from Heaven
," both films from director Todd Haynes delving into the intolerant, prejudicial landscapes of the era in which they are set. Modeling these features in ways both aesthetic and thematic after key works from filmmaker Douglas Sirk (most notably 1955's "All That Heaven Allows"), Haynes is so adept at capturing this period and milieu it is as if he has transported his cast back in time. Adapted by first-time feature screenwriter Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel "The Price of Salt," "Carol" is cinema for the senses, touching one synchronously on visual, auditory, textural and emotional planes. At the center: two spectacularly nuanced performances from Cate Blanchett (2015's "Cinderella
") and an arguably never-better Rooney Mara (2015's "Pan
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is an unenthused shopgirl working the toy counter at upscale Manhattan department store Frankenberg's. Through the haze of holiday shoppers walks Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an older, glamorous, fur-coated vision looking for a Christmas gift for young daughter Rindy (Sadie Heim, Kk Heim). They share a moment together loaded with far more unspoken pretense than anyone around themor even Therese herselfunderstands, and then Carol is off again into the sea of consumers. She has left behind her gloves, however, and Therese is surprised when, upon contacting her customer to return them, Carol invites her out for a thank-you drink. In the midst of a rocky divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler), Carol makes it known that she is interested in her new friend and would like to spend more time with her. Therese, who is going through the motions with sort-of boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), is confused by her new attraction, but also drawn to it. During a time when same-sex relationships were widely viewed as taboo, even immoral, the purity of their feelings for each other are impossible to deny.
"Carol" is ravishingly conjured as if from a memory of days long past, each image from cinematographer Edward Lachman (2010's "Life During Wartime
") adopting the unmistakable appearance of a moving color snapshot taken in 1952. Perfecting this spell are an array of technical attributes, from Carter Burwell's (2012's "Seven Psychopaths
") wistfully urgent music score, to Sandy Powell's (2011's "Hugo
") exquisitely enveloping costumes, to Jesse Rosenthal's (2013's "American Hustle") dreamily detailed art direction. The vintage beauty on display is undercut by the bitter, potentially suffocating realities of the age. Director Todd Haynes has not set out to make a tragedy, though, instead acknowledging his protagonists' adversities and then allowing them a ray of hope at the end of their external and interpersonal struggles. For as much foolishness as Therese and especially Carol facethe latter is thrust into an unfair custody battle following accusations of violating a cockamamie morality clausethere is, at the end of day, something more powerful between them than in all the busybodies and bigots wielding their opinions on how they should live.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are magnetic screen partners in what is one of the most indelible romances of the year. The restraint Carol and Therese exhibit as they talk to each other and grow ever closer is honestly portrayed, just as the consummation of their relationship, when it eventually arrives in the narrative, is poignantly earned. Blanchett's Carol is stunning from the outside looking inimpeccably dressed, her wavy blond hair curled just right, conducting an air of cool confidence wherever she goesbut all is not perfect in her private life. The dissolution of her marriage to Harge, who sees her suspected dalliance with Therese as a personal affront against his manhood, has not gone smoothly and only gets worse when he files for sole custody of their daughter. Blanchett is luminous for every second, sneakily hilarious one minuteafter a particularly stressful moment, she sighs with resigned frustration, "Just when you think it couldn't get any worse, you run out of cigarettes"and heartbreaking the next. The pinnacle of her raw, humanistic availability comes in a late confrontation with Harge and a roomful of lawyers as she defends her right to be both Rindy's mother and someone deserving of a love that is true to her. It's a great moment in a film filled with many.
For Therese, the newness of their relationship is a little scary but more so exciting. Her self-discovery of her sexuality, ultimately prompting the brave decisions she must make to stand up for what she wants, is sublimely handled. Mara has notoriously underplayed nearly every major film role she has had. Sometimes it works for the characters, and other times it inadvertently causes her to seem like she's lacking personality. Mara's specific performance style fits the quietly modest Therese remarkably well, the actor appearing to gain confidence and come into her own precisely as Therese does. In a film that is all about its two central ladies, a few sensitively observant supporting turns shine through, most notably from Kyle Chandler (2013's "The Wolf of Wall Street
") as Carol's husband Harge, and Sarah Paulson (2013's "12 Years a Slave
") as Carol's empathetic ex-lover, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson).
A resplendent motion picture to drink in rather than watch, "Carol" escapes the trap of becoming an obvious "issues" movie even as it touches upon the uneducated, narrow-minded stigma of homosexuality people encountered decades agoand, regrettably, continue to face in the twenty-first century. First and foremost, Todd Haynes has made a love story intimate in scope and sweeping in feeling, one that shoves pessimism to the sidelines in exchange for optimism and tough, earnest sentiment. "Carol," then, is not about repression at all, but about the exact opposite: the blooming of something beautiful and genuine between two star-crossed souls ready to live their lives on their own terms. The rest of the world should be so lucky.