Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson
Rated R for A Scene of Sexuality/Nudity and Brief Language
"Carol" is a haunting motion picture. It draws you in and places you under its spell for the better part of two hours, and only slowly lets you go. The performances are powerful, the writing is strong, but what really sets the film apart is the dream-like quality that the film has. Watching it is an experience.
Therese (Mara) is a young woman working at a department store. She's aimless and doesn't really know what she wants to do with her life. Her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) wants to marry her, but she can hardly decide what to order for lunch, much less who to marry. While working, she meets Carol Aird (Blanchett), whom she sells an expensive train set to. After Carol accidentally leaves her gloves at the store, Therese has them returned. As a thank you, Carol invites Therese to lunch. The two grow close, eventually going on a road trip together. However, this is the 1950's so such a thing could have a hugely negative impact on Carol's divorce from her husband Harge (Chandler).
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are getting Oscar buzz for their roles in "Carol," as well they should. Blanchett, who is always looking for a challenge, is very good as the liberated woman who knows who she is but was unfortunate to have been born in the wrong time. I found myself thinking, "If only she was living in today's world..." It's not as strong of work as in "Truth," which came out earlier last year (and subsequently disappeared without a trace), since there is one moment where she strikes a false note (I'll chalk that up to bad editing), but she's very good nonetheless. There's a moment where her best friend/ex-girlfriend Abby (Paulson, who is a lesbian in real life), asks her if she knows what she's doing. "I never did," she replies with a smile. Only Blanchett could say it the way she does, with a mixture of mischief, melancholy and wistfulness. Rooney Mara has the less showy role, since by her nature Therese is quiet and shy, but she's just as good. Mara has expressive eyes, which Field takes care to capture. Therese is out of her element, but she can't, and won't, deny the fascination that Carol holds for her. The supporting cast is strong as well, but this is really a two character piece. Kyle Chandler is worth mentioning as Carol's husband, who is forced into a situation in which he doesn't understand. Although initially feeling like a villain, Harge is portrayed as a man in a lot of pain rather than a sadist. The only false performance comes from Jake Lacy, who rarely strikes the right note as Richard. He doesn't have the acting skills to capture the subtlety needed for this film. Fortunately, his screen time is minimal.
"Carol" is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith dealt with homosexual relationships (both oblique and frank) in her novels, having written "Strangers on a Train" and the novels about Thomas Ripley (the first of which was adapted twice in "Purple Noon" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley"). Highsmith herself had numerous relationships with women and struggled with her sexual identity, even going so far as to seek help for her attraction to women. Perhaps that is why the film understands its characters so well (it probably also helps that screenwriter Phylis Nagy knew Highsmith).
Todd Field concentrates more on mood and feeling rather than sex. There is a sex scene, and while both actresses are topless, it's not graphic or even erotic. "Basic Instinct," this is not. Like the rest of the film, it's beautiful rather than titillating. Blanchett and Mara got along very well on set, which made it easier to do. Like the best filmmakers, Field doesn't dwell on it for more than is necessary.
"Carol" takes a little while to work its magic, and even then, there are moments where it drags. But for those who take the journey, it's one they won't forget.