Posted by Joel Copling on December 25, 2015

Per the norm for the melodrama, "Carol" features characters whispering hushed sentiments through long gazes into each other's eyes when they are not taking part in shouting matches, and that's without reckoning the relationship that forms its surprisingly affecting center. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (adapting the novel "The Price of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith) embraces this melodrama, though, and the film is at its best when it is at its least subtle. Indeed, attempts at nuance that doesn't really exist for that central relationship tend to fall flat, because the key is in how broadly defined the relationship is and how that broadness affects the people that surround this prickly situation.

That would be the attraction between Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, the former played with a statuesque reserve and sad, almost cold eyes by Cate Blanchett and the latter played with youthful intrigue and lighter, less pragmatic eyes by a particularly good Rooney Mara. It is the latter on whom Nagy places our focal point-of-view. Therese is a cashier at a specialty store currently in the busy period of the Christmas season. She eyes Carol from across the room, and the two exchange the friendly banter of employee and customer. Something nags at Therese about this woman, though, and a chance (or, more likely, intentional) mistake pulls them back together: Carol leaves her gloves upon the counter at which Therese is working; Therese mails them back.

This begins a sweet back-and-forth dynamic between the two when circumstance beyond Carol's control force her to leave for a period of weeks to drive wherever her car takes her. See, she and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) are on rocky terms right now because of a past transgression of Carol's that drove a wedge between them, in spite of a daughter whose life will be torn in two by the machinations of the court proceedings that must follow a separation. Less is found out about Therese's personal life, but she is sought by the good-natured and annoyingly clingy Richard (Jake Lacy), whose love for and desire to marry her are unrequited on her end, especially as an infatuation with Carol turns to romantic, sometimes intense love.

It is also the 1950's, a period when such love was seen as something to which to refer with a screwed-up face and a tone of bemusement and fear by the small-minded. Director Todd Haynes accurately recreates the era, utilizing art direction that brings to life the styles and designs of the period without going the way of caricature with them and cinematography by Ed Lachmann that is both soft and icy. Carter Burwell's score is stunning, too, supplementing the chemistry between Carol and Therese with warmth and complementing elsewhere by an omnipresence that never calls attention to itself. Performances, apart from those by Blanchett and Mara, are most definitely in line with the treatment of the material.

The film suffers a bit from the sensation that there isn't much going on beneath the surface of a romance in an era that forbids it. Certainly nothing is stated about the period in which they live and the oppression on all sides by an institutional attitude toward homosexuality that was as rigid as it was phobic. There is only a more specific statement when it comes to the attitudes of Harge and Richard, neither of whom approves. "Carol" is a fairly cut-and-dry, will-she-or-won't-she romantic drama, but the dynamic of two women being the subjects of the romance definitely gives it an urgency that it might not have. By the curt final glance between the two women, we're sure they deserve each other, and that's the greater deal of what matters to the audience.

Film Information

Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Jake Lacy (Richard), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), John Magaro (Dannie), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy).

Directed by Todd Haynes and written by Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel "The Price of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith.

Rated R (sexuality/nudity, brief language).

118 minutes.

Released in select cities on November 20, 2015.