Carol is a visually rich period drama that boasts strong performances and refined direction, though some may find it easier to admire than love.
Carol is set during the early 1950s, where a young woman named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works in a department store by day, but aspires (and practices) to become a photographer in her free time. One day at work, Therese crosses paths with an older woman named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and is immediately smitten with her glamorous customer - taking advantage of Carol having (accidentally?) left her gloves behind as an opportunity to make contact outside of work. Therese and Carol thereafter discretely, but clearly, begin to pursue a relationship with each other, though Therese's lack of experience puts her at a disadvantage in this courtship.
However, Carol is also in the midst of a divorce and her soon to be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is quick to recognize that Carol's interest in Therese - something he aims to exploit as leverage, while he and Carol settle out custody rights for their young daughter. Carol nevertheless continues to seek out the company of Therese, as the connection between them grows deeper and becomes more than just lustful in nature. But will there ultimately be anything other than heartbreak in the cards for the two lovers?
Carol is based on the 1952 novel "The Price of Salt" (which was later republished as "Carol") written by Patricia Highsmith, the author responsible for such touchstone psychological thrillers as Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The movie adaptation of Highsmith's source material, as written for the big screen by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris), plays out as a very restrained and moody romantic drama; reflecting not just the conservative atmosphere of its 1950s backdrop, but also emphasizing that what is not said aloud by its lead characters is often more important than what is. The film in turn presents a cooler alternative portrayal of the '50s to the warmer portrait painted recently by the drama Brooklyn - but, for the most part, effectively.
While the love story presented by Carol was revolutionary back when Highsmith wrote it in the 1950s, its film adaptation is less ground-breaking in the present day by comparison - recalling how the film version of Revolutionary Road was less impactful (with its own re-examination of the 1960s) when it was released in a post-Mad Men world. Carol director Todd Haynes has also examined similar subject matter before (in movies like Far from Heaven and his Mildred Pierce mini-series), though the narrative that he and Nagy have crafted here is nonetheless satisfying as a piece of character-driven storytelling that offers (for the most part) subtle social commentary, taken on its own merits. Carol thus falls short of being a mold-breaker, but at the same time it's still a slow-burn prestige drama with a beating pulse.
With regard to craftsmanship, Carol boasts exquisite cinematography by Haynes' frequent collaborator Edward Lachman, giving rise to a dreary, yet at the same time ethereal vision of the 1950s through the use of a subdued, yet still pleasing color palette. Haynes and Lachman use careful framing and blocking techniques to visually communicate not only the mutual feeling of alienation and vulnerability among the film's characters, but also the yearning experienced by them too. These ideas are further expressed through the elegant production design by Judy Becker (American Hustle) and equally beautiful costume designs by Sandy Powell (Cinderella), which express as much about the film's characters and their own state of being as their words or actions. As such, much of Carol's substance comes through its stylistic elements (including Carter Burwell's moving score)... for better or worse.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett both deliver excellent performances in Carol as, respectively, a young person who's only coming into her own as an adult and an older soul whose experience and emotional baggage is both helpful and detrimental. Mara and Blanchett alike manage to express much about their characters through facial expressions and body movement alone (as mentioned before), in turn making it all the more apparent how much more Therese and Carol want to say to one another than they ever do. However, while the connection between Carol's two protagonists is believable on the whole, there's not that much pure screen chemistry between Mara and Blanchett - meaning, the film succeeds more at making its viewers become invested in the fates of its main characters individually, rather than their possible future together.
Blanchett and Mara are the main attractions in Carol, but they're helped along the way by a talented and capable crew of supporting actors too - including, Kyle Chandler (Bloodline) as Carol's hurt, but at the same time hurtful, soon to be ex-husband Harge and Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), who plays Abby: Carol's old friend and onetime lover. Other players in the film include noteworthy character actors like Cory Michael Smith (Gotham), Jake Lacy (Obvious Child), and John Magaro (Unbroken), all of whom deliver solid performances as the various men who have some significant impact on Therese and/or Carol's life, in some way or another.
Carol is a visually rich period drama that boasts strong performances and refined direction, though some may find it easier to admire than love. Many a filmgoer will be swept up by Carol's story about forbidden love between two kindred spirits against a gorgeously-recreated period setting, but at the same time others may find themselves more entranced by how the story is being told rather than the relationships between characters or the exact details of what is happening onscreen, in terms of plot. Todd Haynes' film has already been deservedly recognized in the ongoing awards season for its accomplishments, and Carol is certainly recommendable to those who love a good arthouse drama for related reasons (its lack of crossover appeal aside).
Carol is now playing in the U.S. in a limited theatrical release. It is 118 minutes long and is Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.
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