Into the world of housewives, martinis, long leather gloves, Packards and country homes comes the story of a young woman’s sexual identity emerging in a world that doesn’t yet welcome it. It comes anyway. It comes the moment Rooney Mara‘s character Therese lays eyes on the exquisite creature known as Carol, played by Cate Blanchett.
Tall, draped in a floor length fur coat, with a shock of blonde hair swept back, she is undeniably compelling. Mara’s eyes are so direct, so purely sincere that she too becomes compelling. In a moment, Blanchett is by her side. In another moment they are arranging to meet somewhere for some reason under the guise of friendship.
There is so much beauty in “Carol” it’s hard to imagine that any kind of ugly world could have flourished. Adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel (“The Price of Salt”) by Phyllis Nagy, Haynes shot the film in super 16 with his trusty cinematographer Edward Lachmann and a score by Carter Burwell, with Sandy Powell doing the glorious costumes. “Carol” is top to bottom a lavishly put-together film, of the kind we don’t get to see that often anymore.
Blanchett is superb as the title character, allowing heat to flow through her as she seduces a woman younger than her carefully but deliberately. She bobs between resisting her husband, whose touch she can’t stand, giving of herself to her adored daughter and allowing her own indulgent pleasure to creep in when she’s with Therese. Mara, though, is the real surprise here, holding down much of the film herself, revealing tender vulnerability and that occasional dimpled smile.
It’s the 1950s. Blanchett is married with a child. Mara has a boyfriend who is looking to get married. They’re playing out what society decided for them. They inch closer to each other with questions. Will you meet me for lunch? Will you meet me for tea? The questions escalate and before long the two women are spending a questionable amount of time together, raising suspicions about their relationship. They are drawn in by an attraction they can’t resist nor explain nor fully comprehend. They go with it because they must.
Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” was about repressed desire stuffed inside the box of a “normal marriage” until it morphs into tragedy. “Carol” is about the step beyond that, the bold admission, the self-acceptance. Blanchett’s husband, played by Kyle Chandler, can’t accept his wife’s ongoing affairs with other women. He vows to do everything in his power to bring her back, even going so far as to threaten to take sole custody of their child. Because he can prove she is what he says she is, the courts will side with him and she’ll never see her daughter again.
For one of the first times in a film about gay women caught in time, these characters are not going to be undone by the constraints of the time. They’re going to work to change those constraints. This is partly where gay rights began. That is ultimately what makes this film so exhilarating. We’ve seen the tragedy. We know about the oppression. Now we see the points of light that helped lead the gay community out of the shadows. It took sacrifice and courage.
“Carol” is about both those things, but what it is about more than anything else is love. It will go down as one of the most romantic love stories of the year.
For whatever reason, Hollywood has never really gotten Haynes. Who could have conceived a film like “Safe” or “I’m Not There” or “Far From Heaven?” He has an explosive imagination and so far has not yet been celebrated to the degree that he deserves. All of that could very well change with “Carol.” It is accessible enough and up to the minute in its examination of gay women finding their way at a time when they were sent to psychiatrists to fix the “problem,” at a time when their children were taken from them for their deviant behavior. Though it seems archaic, gay men and women are still dealing with finding validation for their right to parent children even today.
Haynes’ hand is so assured. He is in complete possession of the frame. He never rushes any scene but lets the conversations unfold naturally. He has a great relationship with Blanchett already from “I’m Not There,” but it is perhaps Mara who becomes the perfect muse for Haynes. Not since David Fincher has anyone gotten her better, allowed so much versatility in what she is capable of.
“Carol” is about many things. It’s about love and coming out. It’s about color and music. It’s about romance and pretty things. Haynes’ films are satisfying because they are packed with detail. They are memorable because he paints with pictures. “Carol” is one of his best.
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