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Director: Todd Haynes
Writers: Phyllis Nagy (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young single woman with flittering aspirations to be a photographer, recently employed at a high-end department store but hoping to get a job at The New York Times. She is entangled with a man who has genuine feelings for her, wants more and is aggressive in getting her hand, though she is unsure about much in her romantic life. The two have yet to be intimate and she is in no hurry as her attraction lies with women rather than men. Demure and mousey, she is all but invisible.
Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a stylish, wealthy suburban housemaid in an unhappy marriage, mother to a very young daughter, and barely hiding her desire to be with another woman. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is well aware of the temptations that have lured his wife away in the past, but feels these moment are fleeting and her devotion to him will return, though a divorce is inevitable. Carol drifts through life in near misery, playing the doting wife to him and his parents, finding only joy in the company of her child.
When Carol and Therese meet, it is ostensibly a business transaction that is crackling with flirtatious emotion despite the subdued tones they both exhibit. It’s not long before they meet again and share more time together, Therese even invited to Carol’s home where Harge is immediately suspect of their relationship. He desperately pleads with her to let this side of her life go, but she is unwilling and it’s not long before she and Therese are on a road trip, clearly escaping the binds of a secret love affair. In a hotel, they consummate their love and in the morning learn of a terrible betrayal that forces them apart.
Directed by Todd Haynes (who directed Blanchett in 2007’s I’m Not There), handles this romance with a sensual touch, pacing the long quiet moments between these characters with great patience. Filmed in Super 16 millimeter to imitate the look and feel of the period, it is sumptuous to look at, made more so by the marvelous attention to detail in the sets and cityscapes. The soft focus bold colors are exquisite and the dreamy sequences of their passion are supremely done. He explores the hidden world of lesbian love in the early 1950s with focus rightfully set on the two women, the drama inherit in their forbidden romance, but not overly dwelled upon where the story is about that rather than them. He captures much of that anguish in several moments with the women looking out of car windows, watching from behind glass a world that they can never be a part of. Yet the pain of their affair is as much about the breakup of a family as it is about the strain of two women trying to be a couple.
Blanchett and Mara are both fearless actresses, taking on roles that are always challenging and here both are very good. Blanchett’s Carol is high sophistication, a women bound by the role she married into and tortured by that existence, on the verge of crumbling with every desperate breath she takes. Mara is a marvel as a gentle ingenue, like the woman she is attracted too, living two lives, which is painfully obvious as we watch her morph from the girl in the company of boys to the woman in the arms of Carol.
Carol is a slow burn, a powerful emotional journey that loses a bit in the jarring twist that sees Carol leave Therese, and then a wrap-up that feels a bit rushed though the final moment is a beautiful, perfectly imagined scene that is both refreshingly uplifting and surprisingly hopeful.