Carol ★★★

Strong admiration is extended, but I’m not as enraptured by it as I should be. Carol is the 1950’s lesbian love story, that taboo subject, that director Todd Haynes often handles adeptly. With subtlety and understatement, Haynes captures the masks and disguises of East Coast ritz and culture of that time period. Cate Blanchett plays the elegant mentor Carol who lures Rooney Mara's mousy shopgirl Therese. The performances are excellent, particularly Mara, who never acts with bodily confidence and comes off astray even in broad daylight.

It seems more obvious to us, the audience, than to them that they are attracted to each other. There is what I would call suspense, that lasts for a very long time, as to when the right moment will happen in which they will act on lust, or even a brushing flirtation. They are trapped in a society where to express desire means to first play it out in an interminable game of veiled hidden messages.

That’s because if they act on lust, at anywhere or anytime, there could be consequences. Early on it is made clear Carol is divorcing, and if Carol is caught committing any indecent act her husband can slap a morality clause on the suit that favors him in the custody battle for their daughter.

Here’s another strange thing in how times then were different. When Carol has a meeting with her lawyer, he explains to her the morality clause. Carol has confusion with his legal speak. Then he asks her if he may be blunt. I thought, finally! Somebody is going to break the wall of polite language and say what’s really on their mind in this film! What comes out of his mouth next is quite discreet. The discussion implies he knows rumors of Carol’s lesbian indiscretions. Yet nothing close to clear and precise language is verbally said.

There are timid but good-looking young guys throughout that try to woo Therese. One of them is a “serious” boyfriend who wants to marry her. He is distressed when Therese says she is going to take a road trip with this strange new friend of hers. He never uses the word “lesbian” or “gay” and addresses his concern that Therese is acting on some kind of a “crush.” Sure, he knows what is going on between Carol and Therese, but it’s like he can’t even admit it that Therese is gay and not the right person for him.

The road trip happens, there are a series of motel stops, and well, we wait. We know there will be some kind of declaration of love at some point – we hope! – but first we have to see them go through charades of indirect speech.

By adhering to its obstinate approach, it's kind of a significant film in the way it captures that climate of closet gayness of that time period. Yet I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say it’s hard for me to work up overflowing enthusiasm for it. Haynes captures the rigid mood as well as the tactile look of the 1950’s with precision in scene after scene, but the film drags more than it flows. I suppose that is going to be the case when you have a film where no one ever says what’s truly on their mind. Even so, Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” (2002) relied majorly on repression and taboo love, and that was a masterpiece. Also, that film had luster instead of the uninterrupted somber and gray tones here.

(SPOILER ALERT) The last shot of the film is of Carol, looking chic and behaving with 5th Avenue kind of debonair, absolutely doing it for appearances. I like the shot that comes right before though, of Therese, who is a little too tender, a little too mannerly, and uncertain of how to come out and say what she wants to say, and say it in time. Mara, with that clipped bird expression, captures that 1950's closeted girl so well that I simply find her to be the film's most indispensable asset.

Carol was adapted from an early Patricia Highsmith novel, published in 1952 under a pseudonym with the title “The Price of Salt.” Highsmith’s most accessible work were adapted into popular films, among them “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), and the underseen gem “The Two Faces of January” (2014).

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