There are so many laudatory reviews of the multiple-awards contender “Carol” that I struggled to write about this well-crafted film without just repeating what’s already out there. This is an occasion where I had to consciously remind myself that my review should be just that – my experience of watching what director Todd Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as well as many others obviously worked so hard to produce. The summation of my experience is this finely-etched piece ultimately gripped me because it’s powered by the one thing that truly matters – love.
No, not the very drippy “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” of “Love Story” or the extremely earnest “You complete me” of “Jerry Maguire” – in fact, words of love are not what matters in “Carol” because a gesture and a look remind us all of the bond that can survive anything. Discard the labels, look beyond the veneer and you’ll see a story that doesn’t need to overstate what develops between two people that only want to love and be loved as we all do.
You may already be familiar with the backstory, but in case you’re not, here goes – novelist Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) wrote “The Price of Salt,” which given its tale of a budding love between two women was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in the very closeted world of 1952. The book became a cult classic at least in part because it offered the prospect of a happy future which was in stark contrast to the tragic ends such characters were often subjected to then (and since).
Nagy, a director and playwright, knew Highsmith at the end of her life (the author died in 1995), and has worked for several years on a script. With Haynes (director and co-screenwriter for HBO’s excellent 2011 miniseries adaptation of “Mildred Pierce”) helming the film was shot in 2014 using Cincinnati as a stand-in for 1950’s New York City. (I think the Queen City deserves a hand for offering very good locations.)
Carol Aird is locked in a messy divorce-and-custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) when she meets department store employee Therese Belivet while shopping for her daughter’s Christmas gift. Leaving her gloves behind (we certainly wonder whether that was accidental or not) Carol is thrilled when Therese arranges to return them, which sets in motion a growing relationship that understandably impacts more than them – in addition to Harge and their daughter, Carol’s old friend and former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson), a young man named Richard (Jake Lacy) who apparently wants to marry Therese and another would-be suitor named Dannie (John Magaro), who encourages Therese’s photographic pursuit while making a pursuit of his own.
As with any adaptation some changes have occurred, and I think they’re brilliant: one is having Mara’s Therese be a photographer and not a theater set designer as in the novel, which allows us to see her as an observer who’s slowly learning to be a participant in life, while another is allowing the story to be told from more than the younger woman’s POV. In the book Carol was always viewed through Therese’s eyes, but we get a broader perspective in the movie that makes the somewhat older sophisticate less mysterious and therefore more approachable for us.
Blanchett is perfect for Carol because she knows how to convey a role where the outwardly theatrical and inwardly vulnerable intersect constantly. Mara – who won Best Actress honors at Cannes for this performance – has a still-waters-run-deep quality that works well for Therese; she’s a study in youthful transition and transformation that’s fascinating to watch. There are many moments in “Carol” – which has among other features a “Brief Encounter”-like touch noted by several reviewers – that point up just how right these two are for these roles and each other, but when you see the following exchange you’ll know exactly why I feel that way: “I want to ask you things, but I’m not sure that you want that,” Therese tentatively says, to which Carol assuredly replies, “Ask me things. Please.” Yes, it’s good dialogue, but the way it’s delivered is of course what really sells it.
Paulson (she’s excellent in everything she does, isn’t she?), Chandler, Lacy and Magaro each provide strong performances that serve as more than signposts for the journey the two women take (literally and otherwise); Cory Michael Smith has a very sharp turn as Tommy Tucker (though I won’t spoil things by writing more about his good work). Carrie Brownstein’s time onscreen is very short but it’s nice to see the “Portlandia” star in a cameo that’s very different from her usual (though very entertaining) appearances.
The movie, which is smoothly edited to a gentle pace by Affonso Gonçalves, is shot on Super 16mm by director of photography Ed Lachman with superb framing (including several looks through glass that create a gauzy distortion of times, places and people underscoring the outsider nature of Therese and Carol) and often-muted colors that allow for fascinating contrast with such elements as Sandy Powell’s nuanced-color-palette costumes and a snug-as-a-glove period look from production designer Judy Becker, art director Jesse Rosenthal and set decorator Heather Loeffler.
Carter Burwell‘s calm but ever-determined music score is another fine aspect of this movie; his impressive compositional range is on display in a number of new films this year, like “Mr. Holmes” and the Kray brothers’ biopic “Legend.”
All the aforementioned aspects of “Carol” combine to craft one of this year’s finest films, but that craftsmanship serves the larger purpose of reminding us that opportunities for love – a patient, understanding, forgiving, mature, committed bond – must be grasped and held onto with all our might. Cinematic love stories have rarely been as captivating as “Carol” because most are like dining on candy floss instead of a full meal; beneath the cool and considered veneer of this feature beats a heart that withstands labels, bigotry, or any other challenges an often cold and weary world might care to devise.
“Carol” opens in Nashville Christmas Day exclusively at Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 (3815 Green Hills Village Dr.); the film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration “for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language” and runs 118 minutes. For showtimes and tickets visit Fandango or MovieTickets.com.