Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Carol

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Few filmmakers are as adept at capturing eras of American history and then deconstructing them as Todd Haynes, whose latest, "Carol," is a sumptuous romantic drama based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, "The Price of Salt."

With "Far From Heaven," Haynes paid a loving homage to Douglas Sirk, all the while giving the film his own distinct voice, and his "I'm Not There" will, perhaps, be the only picture ever to truly capture the essence of Bob Dylan and what he meant to the 1960s. His "Mildred Pierce" was a fine piece of 1940s noir drama, "Safe" was a near perfect encapsulation of AIDS era paranoia and "Velvet Goldmine," although a mere good film in an oeuvre filled with great ones, certainly portrayed glam rock in all its glorious excesses.

"Carol" finds Haynes working with slightly more moody material and it's a film marked by restraint, although given occasionally given to sequences of gorgeously filmed melodrama. Visually, the picture presents an authentic snapshot of the early 1950s and cinematographer Edward Lachman manages to find beauty in that era's drab department stores, diners and New York City apartments.

Set in 1952, "Carol" is, for lack of a better phrase, a story of a Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. This romance is between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett, who encapsulates the era in every way in the film, from the clothing she sports from the shape of her face and cat-like eyes), a wealthy New Jersey woman in the middle of a divorce with her controlling husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara in a very strong performance), a quiet shopgirl at a department store with a doting boyfriend who doesn't quite pique her interest.

When we meet Carol, she is fighting her soon-to-be-ex-husband for custody of their young daughter and we learn that among the many reasons the marriage fell apart was her previous affair with a long-time friend and confidant named Abby (Sarah Paulson, excellent in a supporting role).

Carol's eyes land on Therese behind the counter at her department store while Christmas shopping and the younger woman assists her in purchasing a train for her daughter. But the older woman accidentally leaves her gloves at the shop, Therese gets them back to her and this event is the excuse used to launch a friendship that quickly grows into something more.

Therese's boyfriend calls her "Terry," Americanizing her - she's U.S.-born, but with a Czech name - but Carol draws out her name (pronounced "Te-rez") and emphasizes the young girl's exoticness. One of the most fascinating elements in "Carol" is how the upper hand is, at times, held by one of the two women and, at others, by the other. But this film is not about a power struggle, but rather a relationship in which each character benefits and, due to the conservative time period in which it is set, suffers.

A large portion of the picture is in the form of a road trip that Therese takes with Carol that includes elements of romance, eroticism, melodrama and even a little mystery. In one scene, Haynes even breaks the rule of Chekhov's gun. Although the film is straightforward in terms of story and style, there's a dreaminess to much of the proceedings - for example, Therese's staring out of moving cars at young children running on darkened streets or a cloud reflected in a car window as Carol and Therese have a conversation.

One of the picture's best - and key - scenes is repeated twice. As the film opens, Carol and Therese are spotted by a young man as they have dinner. He interrupts them, which breaks up the meeting and Therese goes on with him to a party. It all seems innocuous the first time we watch the scene. The rest of the film is primarily a flashback leading up to that meal and the second time we witness the scene, it's from a different angle in which much more emotional complexity can be spotted.

Although purposely restrained, "Carol" is a powerful, beautifully acted, visually gorgeous and often haunting period piece. Its melancholic mood and relatively open ending will likely stay with you long after you've left the theater. Haynes is a master of period drama and "Carol" is one of the most accomplished movies you'll likely see in a theater this year.

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