Carol ★★★★

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from “Carol,” director Todd Hayne’s film based on the semi-autobiographical Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt.” Set in 1952, would this story of a same-sex love affair be a paean to LGBTQ+ rights and how far we have (or haven’t) come? Or would it be a sad tale about oppression and repression, focusing more on the inner lives of the characters? To my distinct pleasure, it was neither. Instead, Haynes gives us a simple bittersweet romance, grounded in excellent performances by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett.

Therese Belivet (Mara) works in a department store, but dreams of being a photographer. Her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) wants her to go to France with him, thinking that perhaps he can convince her to marry him. However, Therese is indifferent to the trip and to Richard. She meets Carol Aird (Blanchett) during the holidays at her store. Carol is seeking a toy for her daughter, and Therese convinces her to buy a model train instead of a doll. When Carol leaves her gloves on the counter at the store, Therese has an excuse to follow up with her. Over a series of encounters, the two develop a friendship and eventually a deeper, romantic attraction. But although Carol is estranged from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) he still wants to reconcile and they have not officially divorced. And having an affair with Therese could jeopardize her relationship with her daughter.

Haynes doesn’t sensationalize the story in any way. Reminiscent of the director’s earlier “Far from Heaven,” this movie presents its tale of love in an even more low-key and less melodramatic way. Although Therese is clearly not fully aware of her feelings at the beginning, the movie doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring any angst she might feel about being attracted to someone of the same sex. Instead, her concerns are around Carol’s marriage, the age difference between them and her career – all things that would be valid regardless of the sexual orientation of the protagonists. I appreciated that.

I also respected the fact that neither Richard nor Harge come across as the bad guys. There are a couple of moments in the story when we could easily see these men as mean-spirited or cruel; as they work to retain their female lovers, they do some reproachable things. But Haynes backs away from pressing the advantage against them and their actions. Instead, we get well-rounded portraits of individuals with mixed motives, and their own places of passion, loss, and pain. There are no heroes or villains in this movie.

Another similarity between this film and “Far from Heaven” is in the use of saturated colors. Especially early on, many of the scenes are filled with greens and reds – both in the costumes and production design, but also in the lighting. At times, it’s almost too much. I felt like the saturated greens and reds created a sickly sweet miasma – as if the whole story took place inside of a holiday fruitcake. Still, I think Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman have a method to their madness. Later on, we see the reds and greens give way to brighter, more natural light. As the romance evolves, it feels as though the characters have stepped out into the sunlight and the contrast is quite effective.

More than anything, what carries the film is the excellent work of Mara and Blanchett. Therese wants to find her place in the world, but up until the moment Carol walks into her store, she has allowed other people to define what that place should be more often than not. Her wide-eyed wonder at the strength, confidence and grace of Carol channels itself through Mara’s ingenuous face. We understand her near idolization the seemingly self-possessed Carol. Blanchett meanwhile gives us a worldly-wise woman who takes her power when she can, but also flashes through her brokenness and insecurity. This ability to shift tones from strong to vulnerable has long been a hallmark of Blanchett’s acting, and it’s on full display here.

It’s hard to imagine a happy ending for characters in a complicated situation such as this. Nonetheless, I finished the movie with a sense of optimism. Haynes and his actors affirm the power of love. If that power is not sufficient to overcome all obstacles yet, it can still transform the world one individual at a time.

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