Carol ★★★★½

Novelist Patricia Highsmith kept her career primarily defined by her output as a writer of psychological thrillers, since what she wrote in that genre was highly praised and often sold well enough to keep food on the table. Attempts to diverge from this niche were very infrequent, and her very first non-thriller was a radical departure in many ways. Her second novel, The Price of Salt, was rejected by her first publisher, citing it as career suicide coming off the heels of Strangers on a Train. Highsmith seemed to agree somewhat since she adopted a pseudonym for the final release, but this was also done as it was a lesbian romance novel, a controversial subject for 1952, and pulled from Highsmith's personal life and relationships to form a story lauded as groundbreaking for years thanks to an ending that doesn't resort to tragedy. For over five decades, plans were made to adapt Highsmith's story (including a pitch that changed the major character's name from "Carol" to "Carl", which....oh honey, no), with director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy finally able to do justice to the story, with a name change to the punchier Carol, and elegant restraint used to tell a subtle, forbidden romance.

Young aspiring photographer Therese meets by chance the older Carol, with both womens' lives changed by a simple act of generosity. With these two personalities contrasting and trying to keep in contact during a time where homosexuality was regarded as unlawful, figuring out the mechanics of happiness and the beautiful stakes involved slowly becomes precisely what both of them want answered. Therese is by many means distant through her stoicism, detached as a result of having to repress herself for so long and struggling to see herself as anything but part of the problem, wondering if she can really be happy. Carol is more experienced, and this is what's currently costing her the chance to see her daughter, going through a divorce by her realistically menacing husband, and forced to fight her way to happiness, even if her elusiveness and own internal conflicts threatens to lower her resilience. Strong writing and great chemistry between these two allow us to become immersed in their bliss, and devastated when the assertive indifference of society pulls them apart.

Haynes' decision to not overplay the setting and time period works wonders in keeping focus on the inherent classiness and beauty of the relationship, and even then his techniques allow for grittiness appropriate as a supplement. Shot on 16mm, it achieves an understated look that lets Manhattan and the open roads as naturalistic as possible, showing us the couple's relationship like we would as an outsider ill-equipped to share, with only brief invitations of the subjective emotion through soft, abstract camera pans. Elegant fashion and environments really help sell the superficial, cold atmosphere of the Christmas season while also being aesthetically pleasing to look at, and the slow pace of it all allows us to try and absorb what we can between these two lovers, the drab towns and rugged motels they stay in during a road trip away from the problems in Manhattan. Through all these, Haynes allows romantic tension to never go away, keeping intimacy mature and only able to be truly free in one or two scenes, much like Carol and Therese's own necessity of keeping their sexuality restrained in the eyes of other and persistent in their minds and hearts.

As one of the most stunning and moving stories about homosexual love, Carol slyly goes through its unconventional story without any clutter, and without wasting any time even when moments suggest little to be happening in an exterior way. The interior emotions, and the ambiguity surrounding them at points, are carefully constructed, treating its couple like fine art through being a patient observer instead of going for more obvious directions for their love to potentially go. Carter Burwell's score is achingly tender, divine and respectful of the scenes it accompanies and complimentary of the restraint, yet acknowledgement of the elegance that roams all around it. Truly captivating, truly intense in how slowly it burns and how pronounced its embers are more than the actual fire, it's a film that's timeless and can surely resonate with a lot of people even with the specificities employed. After all, regardless of sexuality, love is just one part of the human condition we all find ourselves working through at some point, irrevocably more often than not.

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