“Carol,” an adaptation of a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith directed by Todd Haynes, sweeps the viewer up into a heady, exquisitely choreographed dream, casting as beguiling a spell as its seductive title character.
Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a stylish New Jersey homemaker doing some last-minute Christmas shopping in Manhattan when she spies a watchful shop girl named Therese. The two have a perfectly unimportant interaction about dolls and toy trains, ending in a sale, when something cataclysmic happens: Carol turns on her way out, smiles slyly and, pointing to the Santa cap Therese wears with obvious discomfort, says, “I like the hat.”
It’s an electrifying moment, and for Therese, who’s portrayed by Rooney Mara in an Audrey Hepburn-esque performance, a defining one. Finally, the audience senses, she’s been seen by someone, in a deeper, more knowing way than ever before.
“Carol” traces the two women’s friendship that gradually, inescapably, develops into a passionate romance, bringing the audience along on a love affair born of instinct, affinity and the instantaneous connection that Rilke compared with “two solitudes,” touching and greeting each other.
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But “Carol” takes place in the early 1950s, when love between two women still dared not speak its name. Haynes allows the gleaming surfaces, meaningful looks and subliminal cigarette smoking do the talking in a film that harks back to the work of his hero, Douglas Sirk, both in look and deceptively subversive tone.
“Carol” is an almost perverse exercise in exquisite taste and masklike performance. While Carol battles her soon-to-be ex-husband Harge (perfectly played by Kyle Chandler) and Therese swims into consciousness against the tide of an eager boyfriend (Jake Lacy), their outer selves express all that goes unspoken, silenced by the conformist culture that engulfs them.
In one of the film’s most effective sequences, the two take a car ride from Manhattan to New Jersey, and it unfolds with almost dreamlike abstraction. This is what it’s like to fall in love, the movie seems to say, before you realize you’ve even tripped.
Playing out with episodic inevitability, the plot feels schematic and obvious until the viewer realizes how expertly Haynes has drawn the viewer into Therese and Carol’s feelings and desires. The film ends with a sequence that is simultaneously devastating and soaringly triumphant.
5 stars out of 5
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson.
Director: Todd Haynes.
Running time: 1:58.
Rated: R, for a scene of nudity and sexuality, and brief profanity.