Carol ★★★★

"Oh, Carol, don't let... her steal your heart away!" Actually, whatever Chuck Berry might tell you, it's Carol who's doing the stealing, gaining the affections of a fetching and ambitious, but somewhat naïve young woman, which makes this sound like either bold romantic drama or generic erotica. Seriously though, among the most groundbreaking things about the novel was its defying the butch-lesbian stereotype, and portraying the two leads as beautiful and classy, which probably made the book as big of a hit with straight men as it was with gay women. As for the gay men, with this being a period piece about some miserable, middle-aged woman divorcing from her husband and getting into a homosexual affair, you better believe that Todd Haynes is all over this. I reckon it's taken over sixty years to adapt this book because no one but Haynes could make this movie, although they probably just recently pieced a copy of the novel back together from the ashes every single copy was reduced to shortly after publication. This story was mightily progressive back in the '50s, it's a little bit regressive for Haynes, seeing as how he already had Cate Blanchett more-or-less play tranny in "I'm Not There", back before it was cool. This film is very good and everything, but "I'm Not There" isn't just way ahead of this in terms of its supposedly implied LGBT themes.

The film focuses upon the leads' respective storylines about as thoroughly as it focuses on their mutual, slipping into unevenness by dragging and padding either plot until the almost dual-progression in the narrative is rendered under-realized. The aggravation is not simply in the film's plodding, but in the film's lacking consistent developmental direction to justify the plodding, in its often undercooking many areas of evolution in the leads' character and affair, and barely touching upon the leads' barely consequential peers. There's not much sense of humanity or conflict surrounding the two protagonists, because sparseness is pretty much a fundamental issue with Phyllis Nagy's script, whose dialogue is often sporadic and lacking in any focus, let alone expository value that would have reinforced the grace of the delicacy in the direction more than detracted from it. Todd Haynes has the capacity to enchant with his somber atmospheric and delicate craftsmanship, but the substantial foundation is ultimately so frail that banality matches resonance, gradually devaluing pseudo-lyricism as this artfully crafted drama unravels, and always stunting a sense of well-realized pathos. After a while, it gets kind of hard to really tune in with the histrionic and naturalist dramatics that clash to begin with, but the worst thing about the chill in the air is its stressing how simple and familiar this story is, how it never really has very much dimension going for it. To be sure, the narrative is compelling and dynamic enough that Haynes could have easily driven the final product to an upstanding point in cinematic beauty and dramatic integrity, but after a while of being almost captivated, I must confess that I grew tired of the film's dragging its feet over simple concepts without really delving in the romantic, dramatic and human layers that could have made this something special. The film falls short of what it could have been, but is ceaselessly rewarding on some decisive level, namely in terms of artistry.

Jesse Rosenthal's art direction is splendid, celebrating Judy Becker's scrupulous production designs and Sandy Powell's elegantly humble costume designs with a tasteful precision that immerses you into the 1950s setting, while playing up the winter climate with an often hypnotic and artful panache. Edward Lachman's cinematography captivates when its astute coloration really plays into the wonderment of the setting and imagery, but it's underplayed, not nearly as consistent in its excellence as Cart Burwell's utterly phenomenal, majestically whimsical score, whose beauty and ease in the context of atmosphere are often beyond words. The film is at its most haunting when Burwell's sophisticatedly creative and penetratingly graceful compositions are at their most prominent, when Todd Haynes is at his most comfortable with his almost lyrical directorial style, but the naturalist connection with setting and essential nuances in material and atmosphere are hardly ever out of tune. The sentimentality is deeply touching, and the sense of importance and conviction behind Haynes' craftsmanship consistent, thus, it's the sparseness of the material that really undoes the integrity of this conceptually slight, potentially robust that certainly has the means in the directing department to stand out. While this story is not as significant and unique in this day and age as it was in the '50s, this is a profoundly romantic and humanly tense melodrama whose full value is lost in writing, by Phyllis Nagy, that is structural uncertain and grossly underdeveloped, but not without moments of powerful dialogue and riveting insight into characterization. Although it is the quality performances of Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson and others that bring life to criminally under-utilized supporting players, the respective grace and strife of and electric connection between the lead roles is sufficient on paper, yet truly brought to life by the kinetic chemistry between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, both of whom deliver as best they can on selling the rich evolutions - one from glamour and confidence to humility and fear, and the other from quiet innocence to self-realized maturity - and consistent depths of the protagonists. Material sadly never escalates to where the leads can be as great as they really try to be, thus making the lead performances a reflection on how the final product falls just short, with just enough unabashed conviction and tastefulness to compel through and through.

In the end, focus is a little uneven, possibly a victim of the combination of serious developmental follies, sparse writing and plodding pacing that shake what depths and distinction there are to this subject matter, and render the final product short of what it could have been, given that there is enough value to the lavish art direction, handsome cinematography, fantastic score work, graceful direction, and gripping performances of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett that bring Todd Haynes' "Carol" very close to an outstanding state as an elegantly heartfelt and somberly engrossing romantic period drama.

3.75/5 - Strong