8 out of 10
Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird
Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard
Jake Lacy as Richard
Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird
Kk Heim as Rindy Aird
John Magaro as Dannie
Cory Michael Smith as Tommy
Carrie Brownstein as Genevieve Cantrell
Kevin Crowley as Fred Haymes
Douglas Scott Sorenson as Charles
Jim Dougherty as Mr. Semco
Directed by Todd Haynes
When Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) at the store where she’s working over the holidays, an instant connection is made, as they attempt to navigate their relationship while dealing with obsessed men – Therese with her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who wants to marry her, and Carol with her husband (Kyle Chandler), who is trying to take custody of their daughter due to her dalliances with women.
I probably wasn’t as big a fan of Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven as many others were, appreciating it more for Julianne Moore’s performance and the craft than anything else. The thought of him adapting Patricia Highsmith’s memoir “The Price of Salt,” another story about a woman being repressed by the times, almost seems like backtracking, and the fact we’ve had an entire run of AMC’s “Mad Men” since Haynes’ last film makes the filmmaker’s love for period settings and old school filmmaking with Carol far less of a novelty. Fortunately, there’s more to Carol than just a bunch of actors playing ‘50s dress-up, as it explores a young woman discovering her sexuality while finding first love without feeling even remotely gratuitous or sensationalistic in the way it expresses those feelings.
Rooney Mara’s Therese is a timid girl working at a department store during the holiday rush but who has aspirations of being a photographer. One day, she meets an interesting older woman named Carol, who leaves her gloves behind at the store, and after Therese has them returned, Carol repays her with lunch as the two form a quick bond. Carol is going through a messy divorce where her husband (Kyle Chandler) is trying to keep them together, using her lesbian affair with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) to try to take custody of their daughter Rindy, and Therese’s appearance doesn’t help Carol’s case.
Carol is very much a love story but not even remotely a conventional one, and it might owe as much to Steven Daldry’s The Hours as it does to Far from Heaven because it’s very much about the relationship between these women.
It does take its sweet time for anything to happen, because so much of the first hour is merely set-up, much of which only begins to culminate in the second half as Carol and Therese go on a road trip to Chicago over the holidays and they start to get to know each other better. This is also where we start to see both actresses shine, especially as Therese starts to find her voice. Things don’t go well, putting a damper on the romance as Carol is forced back home by her husband’s actions, and this last act is where Cate Blanchett confirms why she’s one of the world’s most respected actors.
While Blanchett is always fantastic, making every scene her bitch, the evolution of Mara’s Therese over the course of the film and how she changes and is given strength by spending time with Carol is the film’s biggest takeaway. Sarah Paulson also gives a fine supporting performance as Carol’s childhood friend who is there as support for both women. As was the case with Far from Heaven, the men are merely there to act as obstacles for the women’s arc and the performances by Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy aren’t nearly on par with their female counterparts, often giving overwrought and exaggerated performances.
Other than the performances by Blanchett and Mara, the best thing going for Carol is Haynes’ ability to assemble a team that helps him create such a lush film. The combination of production design, costumes, cinematography and the score by Carter Burwell (with perfectly-placed period songs selected by music supervisor Randall Poster) makes Carol work far better than it might in any other director’s hands. It’s already well known that Haynes has an affinity for the old films of Douglas Sirk and the like and he wears that influence on his sleeve, albeit with more skills and experience than he did with Far from Heaven.
Carol does get progressively better as it goes along and by the time we revisit the opening scene where a friend runs into Therese and Carol sitting in a hotel restaurant, that scene becomes far more powerful when put into context, and it leads to one of those perfect cinematic endings we rarely get in even the strongest films.
The Bottom Line:
A gorgeous and sumptuous period love story that’s a worthy addition to Todd Haynes’ filmography, although it doesn’t really seem to have very much to say.
Carol will be released in select cities on November 20.