A love story set in 1950s New York, "Carol" has a grace and elegance
about it that all great period romances possess, but as a love story
between two women in the 1950s, a small but powerful dramatic bent
elevates "Carol" beyond genre and beyond being labeled "an LGBT film."
Story aside, "Carol" stands on a powerful foundation of artistic vision, production and performance. Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There," "Far From Heaven") was criminally denied an Oscar nomination for guiding this vibrantly realized recreation of the '50s that works from the outside in, setting the stage for knockout performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Although Blanchett is the tour-de-force playing the title character, the film is from the perspective of Mara's Therese, a young 20- something trying to navigate her big city life of a department store job and host of male suitors who becomes instantly intoxicated by Carol, a woman who comes into the store looking for a Christmas gift. From there begins this low-heat, smoldering romance that builds gradually throughout the film. The complication is that Carol is in the process of divorcing her husband (Kyle Chandler) and he's making things difficult for her and her relationship with their young daughter.
Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt" about Highsmith's affair with an older woman, "Carol" has elements of that deeply personal memoir feel. By focusing on Therese, Carol remains a bit more of the alluring enigma, a woman of wealth and elegance who seems to be something else entirely, whereas Therese is meek, impressionable and discovering who she is.
Their discrepancies and the time they live in come most alive in Sandy Powell's costume design, with Therese's thrifty, vintage look compared to Carol's fur coats. Blanchett is always so enchanting to watch, so it's almost unfair that her character is arrayed in elegance. Again, all the elements the costumes, the direction and the actress all come together in total harmony, drawing us into the story completely and most importantly, allowing us to see Therese's experience with the feelings that she experiences.
Haynes' touch and I use that word purposefully is gentle and poised. His camera lingers as it needs to and calls attention to the powerful chemistry between the leads. We feel their every glance and touch, and while these characters' attraction to each other is palpable, Blanchett and Mara's reactions hit the sweet spot between obvious and subtle. The sexual tension mounts gracefully and Carter Burwell's score seems to perfectly accent every emotion.
Fans of romance films, straight or gay, will be completely swept up in this affair, though the script never plays it up for purposes of entertainment. The execution is just so spot-on that the romance becomes as if not more compelling than the drama surrounding it. Some viewers will undoubtedly want more of the LGBT rights history component, but Nagy clearly hasn't written a historical film, she just wants to show how the romance the core of her story was affected by views on homosexuality at the time. Even deeper, "Carol" is more about identity than love, and how desire should shape our choices, even when our logic and society tells us otherwise.
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