AFI Fest Film Review: Carol (★★★½)

carol-poster Transportive and utterly dreamy, Todd Haynes’s Carol whisks us back to a bygone era when reality wasn’t golden but hope always was. The “American Dream” at this time was a white male hetero-normative one, where the perfect Christmas involved the snooty in-laws, a beautiful wife whose only purpose was to please her husband and entertain at business functions, and a child who marveled at all the presents they’d receive from Santa and their inseparable mommy and daddy. But did anyone ever ask what the wife wanted, what women belonging to this time period desired for themselves that didn’t always parallel the yearnings of their significant other? Not a chance, and therein lies the tragedy of protagonists Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), two lesbians taught that fitting in was the right thing to do regardless of conflicting feelings for the same gender. They’re abiding by a male-constructed paradise, one that physically involves them but emotionally couldn’t care less about their wants and biological hungers.

As heartbreaking as it is to see the consequences of Carol and Therese’s eventual love affair, there is grace and beauty in the boldness of such rebellious maneuvering. The journey we take with them as they explore what it means to be truly themselves is unforgettable, never with regret and always steeped in validity of heart. If Carol’s primary drawback is being too composed for its own good, then at least the occasional air of chilliness one feels when watching can be reasoned by simply looking at the age these characters belong to. The 1950s was a period in which feelings were stifled and what emerged were affectations falsely mirroring such sentiments. A stiff upper lip is to be expected, and nobody does it with as much beguiling charm as Cate Blanchett.

carol 1

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt and given a fitting title change, Carol’s double-meaning hints at both the “American-ness” of Christmas and the greatest gift ever bestowed on the young, impressionable but not naive Therese. A New York department-store clerk working to make ends meet while she puts together a portfolio to jump-start her career in photography, Therese’s life is given a jolt of sensual enticement upon locking eyes with the luxuriously dressed aristocrat, Carol. The two share what can best be described as a West Side Story moment, their gaze transfixed on one another while the rest of their field of vision blurs itself out. Carol is at the store to purchase a doll for her daughter, Rindy (Kk Heim), but instead opts for a train set after Therese flirtatiously pitches its sentimental value. After Carol departs, Therese notices that the older woman has left her gloves behind, and whether or not it’s an invitation for further interaction, Therese tasks it upon herself to return the forgotten item along with ensuring the train set’s arrival.

Therese’s persistence signals her interest in Carol; once Carol realizes this, she enthusiastically goes full throttle in the hopes that Therese comes along for what’s sure to be an incredible if bumpy ride. Therese, whose boyfriend (Obvious Child’s Jake Lacy) is set on marrying Therese much to her chagrin, views Carol as a much needed escape from the hampering adult burdens placed on her. Even better, Carol’s portrait elegance and unblemished sophistication inspire Therese’s passion for photography. Carol’s photogenic appeal is utilized by Therese without ever seeming exploitative; Therese’s resulting work captures a lady, a lover and a life enthusiast. Blanchett’s alluringly regal yet deeply accessible performance makes it easy to understand why Therese is so smitten by the married social climber. As much as I respect Mara’s contribution to this film — her last scene, in particular, hits a pitch-perfect note of ambivalence — I still find that her chilly onscreen persona keeps me at arm’s distance from fully connecting with her characters (with the exception of her best role to date, found in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). I’m unsure another actor in the role would have yielded different results, but that doesn’t change the facts. The only real downside to Carol is that you can’t help but be drawn to one half of the beautiful relationship significantly more than the other.

carol 3

Todd Haynes, astounding director that he is, doesn’t forget that his leads are only as gifted as those around them to stabilize the story. Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler and Cory Michael Smith all churn out exceptional work despite limited screen time. As Carol’s best friend and former lover, Paulson’s Abby is sensible without ever appearing condescending or unfairly judgmental. As Harge, Chandler shows us the agony of a family man who bites off more than he can chew, demanding the American Dream from his wife without realizing his enemy isn’t Carol but nature itself, which cannot be conquered. Finally, Cory Michael Smith (the Emmy-snubbed standout in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge), is given an inglorious job in the film which I won’t spoil, although the way he’s able to make such an impression speaks volumes about how our good intentions take a backseat to our line of work.

The Weinstein Company has an Oscar-winner on their hands if fate plays its cards the way it should. Even though I see why Cate Blanchett would be the obvious choice to vote for in “Best Actress,” the film’s perspective is primarily Therese’s, which is why campaigning Rooney Mara in “Supporting Actress” seems so wrong. While my preferred mode of engagement with this love story is the source material, Phyllis Nagy still does an admirable job transcending the optimistic spirit of The Price of Salt into a profoundly moving motion picture. Did Todd Haynes deliver the year’s finest work behind the camera? I’m not sure I can emphatically agree, but I will say that his continual fight for the LGBT community whilst showing everyone how talented of an auteur he is never ceases to impress me. I cannot wait for audiences to discover this heart-rending gem that hits theaters November 20th, 2015. Carol is a holiday present worth more than you can imagine.

Here’s the film’s breathtaking trailer: