Carol ★★★★½

Carol is an adult love story that begins in a whisper and develops gently. It's decidedly feminine in its craftsmanship and unafraid to be small, because it knows, as Highsmith did, that big ideas are best registered on a small scale.

Patterned on Patricia Highsmith's seminal 1952 novel The Price of Salt (notable for being the first published novel in which two gay characters aren't annihilated by the end), Carol follows a young shop assistant (Rooney Mara) who becomes infatuated with an older married woman (the indomitable Cate Blanchett). Their entanglement further enrages Carol's soon-to-be-ex-husband, who's in love with his wife despite her sporadic lesbian affairs, and he takes revenge by filing for sole custody of their daughter, citing Carol's homosexuality as the reason why she is morally unfit to raise a child. Her young paramour is less hampered by circumstance but no less troubled an individual. Thwarted by a kind of paralysis on the cusp of adulthood, Therese is aloof, disengaged, and edging towards total disenchantment. Carol becomes the first thing she is certain of and she follows after that instinct faithfully, as people in love are want to do. The film shifts eloquently between Blanchett's entrenched anguish and Mara's guarded tiptoeing-around, burning brightest in scenes where their paths converge.

As Carol, Blanchett is soft and evanescent. She's dialed down her mannerisms and speech pattern, playing Carol as a deeply self-possessed lady of leisure. It's a bold choice, considering her character is leading a double life in a period that was demonstrably gender-biased. Carol's sexuality has given her a progressive outlook; as far as she's concerned being a lesbian is inconvenient, but not wrong. By contrast, Rooney Mara's Therese is almost completely unformed. Nobody, not her boyfriend nor any of her acquaintances can access her. She's as put off by their artless advances as she is anguished by the pressure to settle on a singular career ambition. Brimming with reserves of untapped passion, she and Carol meet at a crossroads in their lives, and for a time become each other's means of coping. After a series of repressed encounters over dinner, Carol calls Therese. She doesn't say why she's called, and Therese doesn't push for a reason. They talk in clipped sentences studded by long pauses. Eventually Therese confesses that there are things she wants to ask her, things she's curious about, but that she doesn't know if she should ask. Carol bows her head slightly and says - almost in a cry - ask me!

This is the first screenplay from British playwright Phyllis Nagy, and it's a knockout adaptation. Nagy is comfortable in Patricia Highsmith territory, which is full of volatile, despondent characters perpetrating casual cruelties in circumstances that are always tenuous and vaguely hostile. What's unexpected about the movie is its portrayal of romance, which remains potent and electric without ever becoming sentimental.

Above all else, Carol is an adult love story that develops its ideas with a maturity that's uncommon by cinematic standards. Perhaps the best example of this is in its attitude toward the social prejudices of the era, which are perceptible but hardly ever declared outright by any character. Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy are both openly gay, and their politics are woven into the story with great discipline and poise. The film's agenda (and let me state plainly that it does have an agenda) is secondary to its interest in the women it explores, because Haynes and Nagy know that suggestions are far more powerful than sermons. It doesn't try to be bigger than that - it trusts in its audience to derive the larger ramifications, and in this way it remains beautifully uncorrupted.

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