Reviewed from New York Film Festival 2015
PLOT: In 1950s New York, two women, one a married housewife, the other a young woman without many prospects, find each other at a crucial juncture in both of their lives. Their subsequent relationship could end up being the best thing to ever happen to either or them or a mistake neither of them can recover from.
REVIEW:CAROL is a gorgeous film, a beautifully-made work that elegantly details nuances and complications of falling in love. Its two stars, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, are superb, and will be instantly recognized as front-runners for their respective Oscar categories (I suspect Mara will be considered a Supporting Actress, even if she's very much a lead). It's not a tremendously flashy film, just a simple, heartfelt and moving one.
Set in New York - at least initially - during the holiday season in 1952, CAROL focuses on the complex relationship between Therese (Mara), a burgeoning photographer stuck working in a department store, and Carol (Blanchett), a wealthy suburban housewife undergoing a divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler, quite good). The divorce is verging on the messy; it's hinted at that Carol engaged in an illicit affair with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), which brings into question a "morality clause" that could impede her from seeing her daughter. It's at this critical juncture that Therese catches Carol's eye (and vice versa), and a quiet seduction begins between the two. As they dance around their feelings - or at least verbalizing them - Carol impulsively decides to take a road trip out west. When she asks Therese if she'd like to join, it takes Therese but a second to answer in the affirmative. On the verge of forming a very powerful bond, the two women will find their burgeoning relationship tested almost all too quickly.
CAROL's transfixing allure comes from the unspoken love that swiftly flourishes between the two women. Indeed, Carol is smitten with the younger woman, but also hesitates to make her passion physical, as the threat of losing her daughter looms large. Therese, for her part, will seemingly go along with anything Carol desires, but isn't necessarily prepared to admit her own feelings of desire for the other woman. As directed by Haynes, CAROL consistently asks us to study these two people and their looks of longing and uncertainty; it's a movie that does so much with just its actor's faces.
Haynes really could not have cast this film any better. Blanchett is the closest thing we have today to an actress who looks like she stepped out of Hollywood's Golden Age, and her feline features have never been so mysterious or fascinating. The movie often asks us to take Therese's point of view; we stare at Carol and are enchanted by her, even while we attempt to see beyond the smiling facade. When we finally begin to learn more about Carol, and her fragility begins to show, the entirety of Blanchett's ability as an actor is put on display and it's quite a thing to watch. Just as we see Carol through Therese's eyes, the reversal of that is equally true. Mara is up to the task of matching her co-star's magnetism, which is no easy task; I've always felt Mara gives off a chilliness that makes it hard to truly enjoy watching her, but in CAROL she's excellent, making Therese a sympathetic, flesh-and-blood young woman; we gather she has an inability to understand who she really is, and her gradual, delicate coming to terms with herself is rather profound.
On the technical side of things, CAROL is impeccable. Ed Lachmann's cinematography sublimely evokes the 50's, while also frequently lending an ethereal atmosphere to the story. Carter Burwell's score is, like the movie, fairly understated, but moving nonetheless. The period design, overseen by production designer Judy Becker (who excels at this kind of thing), is flawless, as is the costume design by Sandy Powell. Really, there aren't quite enough adjectives to describe the refinement of this movie, though I've given it a go.
Finally, though it's a movie about two women who are in love with one another, it would be thoroughly incorrect to assume CAROL is chasing a gay audience or isn't accessible to the mainstream. Anyone who has ever loved someone else will recognize these people and their emotions; movie fan or not, you'd be unwise to deny yourself CAROL.