CatherineShort’s review published on Letterboxd:
Love is something we will go to the ends of the earth for and in the case of Carol Aird she has to give up custody of her child in order to be with the woman who truly understands her. You will swoon at almost everything in this film as a traditional love story is given the Todd Haynes treatment and it becomes something beautiful with the visuals of a 1950s woman’s picture and a depiction of love between women that fits our ideals in the modern world. You are swept up in the fevered love affair at the center of this film and when the two are separated your heart breaks as they both lose something that has made them feel whole for what could be the first time in their lives.
In the early 1950s department store employee Therese Belivet, Rooney Mara, is unhappy in her relationship with Richard Semco, Jake Lacy, who wants her to commit to him. She would like to be a photographer but lacks the confidence to pursue her dreams. One day she meets the wealthy and alluring Carol Aird, Cate Blanchett, at work and the two meet again after Belivet gives her the gloves she had left at the department store. They form a close bond as Aird encourages Belivet to come out of her shell and Belivet supports Aird as she goes through a painful custody battle with her alcoholic ex-husband Harge, Kyle Chandler, over their daughter Rindy. They separate after they go away for a weekend and have their sexual intercourse recorded by a private detective hired by Harge. Aird is very unhappy when she is away from Belivet and her longing for her eventually becomes too much as she agrees to let Harge have full custody of Rindy if she can regularly visit her. She and Belivet have dinner and after Belivet momentarily leaves she returns to Aird later.
There is one scene in which Aird and Belivet drive through a tunnel and we see Belivet gazing at Aird with such desire and longing. Lights flash all around them but they are enraptured by one another and this sequence tells me so much about both of them as Aird maintains that cool repose she has right up until the end of the film and Belivet is finally able to feel comfortable in the presence of somebody she is so enamored of. There are so many little details like this sprinkled in between the scenes of Aird and Belivet just talking as we see Belivet doing the little things you do when you are in love with somebody. She is full of fear and anticipation as she picks up the phone and begins to talk to Aird and when she brushes her fingers over the photographs she has taken of her it is like watching them embrace. Her love of this woman can be seen in her art and it is hard to miss the little gazes the two shoot at one another as they try to feel out how the other person feels.
Aird’s torture is also captured beautifully as she lets her beloved daughter go so that she can live her own life. She is seemingly a free, irrepressible woman but with the restrictions of the era she has to stay away from doing the things that would truly fulfill her. Her final speech to Harge in which she dresses him down for not letting her live the life she wants is glorious as we see a woman actually assert herself and become powerful not through emotionally distancing herself from people but through expressing herself. This is a breakthrough for her as she is able to tell Belivet she loves her after this and ask her to come live with her. When the two women speak again at the hushed dinner date they have they have both gained a degree of freedom that they did not have before and they can finally be together and be happy at last.
Blanchett is wondrous as the object of Belivet’s desire as she is sexier than she has ever been and she blends emotional turmoil and breathy voiced sadness so well. The younger Mara matches her as she is innocent and quiet but filled with potential that is awakened by this new lover. They are both at their best in the moments in which they do not speak as there is a reason that Blanchett’s final smile has already become such an iconic moment.