Carol Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler. Directed by Todd Haynes. Rated R. Opens Friday.
The romance in Todd Haynes’ achingly beautiful Carol is built out of small gestures: a pair of gloves left on a counter, a hand on a shoulder, shoes hastily slipped back on. Elegant, composed housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and shy shopgirl/aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) have to hide their courtship in coded language, and thus every minute step they make toward each other carries almost unimaginable weight. They eventually face severe consequences for their love, but while they are constrained by the values of 1950s American society, they are never defeated by them.
Although it examines the ways that the America of the past shamed and repressed gays and lesbians, Carol isn’t a scolding or condescending look at outdated morality. It helps that the film is based on a novel actually published in the same time period, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (who’s best known for suspense novels like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley). As adapted by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, a longtime friend of Highsmith’s, Carol captures the excitement as much as the fear of forbidden attraction between two women, and while it features characters who judge and attack Carol and Therese, none of them are painted as cartoon villains. They are all people living their lives within the confines of what they believe to be right.
That includes Carol’s estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who uses various underhanded tactics in what he believes is an effort to save his family (the couple has a young daughter together). But Carol refuses to back down even as she feels for a man who only wants the kind of happy marriage for which he genuinely thought he had signed up. Blanchett’s Carol is both boldly self-confident and deeply troubled, and the actress pulls off the difficult feat of playing a character who is herself often putting on an act.
Therese is much less demonstrative, but Mara gives her a quiet strength that speaks to how much she must endure, even if it’s on a smaller scale than what Carol faces. Haynes brilliantly captures each of those small moments of both grace and indignity, often with a single, smart close-up that says everything the characters can’t.