“Carol” Review (****)

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Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett star in “Carol.”

Directed by Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not There”), “Carol” tells the story of a young shop girl in the 1950s who falls in love with an older, married woman. The film is based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Haynes navigates this forbidden love story gracefully and gorgeously while infusing some of the best cinematography and set design of 2015.

We are introduced at the beginning to Therese Belivet—played by Rooney Mara—who works as a sales clerk in a department store. Therese is very much a ‘yes’ girl. She answers to ‘Employee 1593’ and doesn’t hesitate to put on her name tag and management-provided Santa hat when she steps behind the counter. She’s quiet and isn’t really sure what she wants out of life. She lives alone and has a boyfriend who seems way more interested in her than she is in him. Mara’s vulnerability keeps the character from ever seeming cold. We don’t see Therese particularly interested in anything at all—until she sees Carol. Draped in fur and jewelry, Carol (Cate Blanchett) makes her way to the counter where Therese is working. The two strike up a conversation in which Carol—thinking about buying a Christmas gift for her young daughter—asks, ‘What did you want when you were a little girl?’ Quietly, sparks fly.

Haynes maintains an admirable amount of restraint throughout. Nothing is flashy and nothing is melodramatic. The film’s quietness allows for small moments to feel all the more powerful. The chemistry between Mara and Blanchett is palpable and exciting. Blanchett doesn’t play Carol as an untouchable goddess (which is what she looks like), but as a woman with a complicated past who has made her own decisions—some of which she deeply regrets and some of which she stands by. She’s complex, she’s loving, she’s curious, she’s sad.

While their relationship continues to grow slowly and naturally, Carol’s husband—played by Kyle Chandler—is still in love with his wife. While Carol wants desperately to do what feels natural to her and pursue Therese, it’s her young daughter that keeps her conflicted. And her husband, who simply won’t let her go. Chandler doesn’t play a villain, but a man who is just as much a victim of his time as Carol and Therese.

The actors work off Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay perfectly. So much goes unsaid between the two main characters but their intentions are always clear. There is one scene involving a gun that felt a bit out of place for me. Another viewing (which this film absolutely warrants) might allow me to digest its purpose a little more, but in an otherwise flawless and artful film, I found it jolting.

Unlike many other LGBT-related films, “Carol” is less about forbidden love and more about how to balance love and life. It’s a mature film with a unique perspective and even more unique themes. Blanchett and Mara exceeded my absurdly high expectations and deserve their likely Oscar nominations.

4 out of 5 stars.

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