Carol is the sort of romance movie that aches, where yearning is sweeping and a kiss on the cheek lingers like an open wound. Its central love is forbidden, fleeting, and, therefore, sacred — even the pangs of melancholy seem to be part of what makes it so beautiful, so emotionally stunning. Like The Bridges of Madison Counties and Blue Is The Warmest Colors before it, a sense of impending doom romanticizes the qualms of a bittersweet ending waiting in the wings. Its passion glows, but is also hesitant and uneasy; cultural reality is an unwelcome guiding light.
The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) seminal novel The Price of Salt, whose direct inside look at a societally tabooed affair was unlike any work released at the time. It focuses on a romance between two women, Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, played here by an excellent Cate Blanchett and an understated Rooney Mara, respectively. Carol is a high society woman who seems to have it all; Therese is a young, aspiring photographer struggling with her vocational satisfaction and her sexuality.
They cross paths during the height of holiday shopping season. Therese, a shopgirl at a busy retail chain, helps Carol with a purchase for her daughter, though the clinical process feels more like flirtation in disguise — dangerous is the atmosphere around them. So when Carol accidentally leaves her gloves at the counter, it gives Therese a reason to continue their attraction, which picks up quickly and sturdily.
Currently, Carol is going through a nasty divorce, her husband (Kyle Chandler) doing everything he can to achieve sole custody of their daughter, using her homosexuality, which has been known to him for years, as a basis for supposed moral corruption. Therese is dating a man (Jake Lacy) with a steady job and marital desire, but lack of physical magnetism leaves her feeling uncomfortable with prospects of a future with him. So an affair acts as an escape, an escape that leads much further than both would ever expect and that allows both to discover what they crave in life, both emotionally and erotically.
Carol is directed by Todd Haynes, whose work ranges from the claustrophobic Safe (1995) to the eccentric I’m Not There (2007). Carol comes closest to his 2002 masterpiece Far From Heaven, a rich Douglas Sirk homage where seeing cinema as an art form never stops being a focal point in our tenable enjoyment. This is one of Haynes’s best films, by far his most intensely romantic and certainly among his most downplayed. Its content suggests melodrama but sidesteps hefty heavy-handedness with luminous fortitude — Carol gets under our skin and doesn’t much care to leave.
Most of this staggering fervor is also in response to its leading ladies, who give Oscar caliber performances. Blanchett, binding her status as one of film’s most accomplished actresses, overwhelms as the film’s titular character. A woman used to being the most sophisticated and eloquent in the room, we find ourselves unhealthily fascinated as her usually glamorous façade extricates in the face of a shaky personal life. Mara’s balancing of idolization and palpable love placed on Blanchett hits hard — her fragile facsimile and unsettled sense of self make her a China Doll of romance. Unlike Carol, who is familiar with the sought after sensation of love, she isn’t much in touch with the notion, making their inevitable separation hurt us more simply because Mara persuades us that Therese might never recover from the heartbreak that becomes her.
The ambiguity of the ending, which suggests that Carol and Therese do eventually reconcile and continue down a more lively romantic path, is perfect for a film that bears the feeling of an impending tragedy at every moment. (Unfamiliar with the source material, I was convinced that death would somehow integrate itself as a major part of the story’s structuring.) Carol is so subtle, so chilly, and so romantic, that gratification does not come instantly; it takes its time overcoming our minds and our hearts. When it does, though, our balance becomes unstable and we suddenly are surmounted. Here is one of the finest movies of the year. A-