‘Carol’ review: Cate Blanchett takes your breath away in this tender love story

A film that doesn’t end in tears for the lead lesbian pair. This, despite it being the 1950s. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (under the pen name Claire Morgan; the book was originally called The Price of Salt), this Cate Blanchett-Rooney Mara drama touches you in the subtlest way possible.
A study in loneliness, it begins with two strangers’ eyes meeting across the floor of a supermarket during Christmas. Socialite Carol Aird (Blanchett) is there to buy a gift for her only daughter Rindy. She’s in a loveless marriage and in the middle of a messy divorce. Therese Belivet (Mara), a temporary salesperson at the supermarket, is manning the doll desk and offers to help her pick said gift, which ends up being a train set. Carol leaves behind her gloves (intentionally) while mild-mannered Therese takes it on herself to return them to her. Carol calls and a friendship begins, but that’s easier said than done…

There is an undeniable attraction between the two and it’s something the men in each of the women’s lives picks up on. Carol’s husband Harge (Chandler) can’t take it that his wife may be falling for another woman and sues for sole custody of their daughter. Meanwhile, Carol and Therese take a road trip to figure things out.
Carol, adapted only once before for radio, had the potential to fall flat on its face. Something it doesn’t because of the strong, nuanced and tender screenplay by Phyllis Nagy. It doesn’t veer off to the over-sentimental end, where most films with lesbian leads tend to drown in. Plus, it’s refreshing to see that the characters are not dramatic for the sake of being dramatic and that there were independent women in the 50s. There aren’t any stereotypes in the film. But this doesn’t mean that they lead fairytale lives (just that you’re rarely made privy to the pain they endure).
Cate Blanchett makes a strong case for a woman who doesn’t ‘want to go against my grain’ but respects convention for the sake of her daughter. She bears the dilemma as long as she can, but says enough is enough when it is. As Carol, she takes your breath away in the most understated way. She’s sophisticated and her charm is not lost on you as a viewer, either.
Mara is perfectly cast as the naive Therese (‘I don’t know anything because I always say yes to everything’) who likes having Richard (Lacy) around but doesn’t love him and breaks up with him when he chides her for having a ‘crush’ on Carol. She kisses a friend, but quickly gets uncomfortable about doing it, and after Carol has just told her that she loves her, agrees to go to a party because a male friend asked her.
Sarah Paulson is a timeless character and, as Carol’s BFF Abby, is her rock— compassionate and hardy at the same time. Her strongest scenes are when she stands up to Harge and when she’s there to break rather bad news to Therese.
The lovemaking scenes are tenderly shot, in extreme close-ups and lingering frames where a look of love lasts longer than a caress in the viewer’s memory. The film’s music is as subtle as the action on screen and is almost a character in the story.
And yes, I might not know much about fashion, but the costuming, make-up and hairstyling (while we’re at it, let’s not forget set design) is true to the period and leaves next to nothing to be desired.

But of course, let’s not forget the film’s flaws. Kyle Chandler comes across as eternally confused. As the cuckold who oscillates between wanting his wife back and letting her be for long periods of time, he’s kind of wasted here. The man doesn’t have the face to pull off the role. He might be playing a homophobe in this film, but he’s too baby-faced for the role. A man with a harder face might have had a better impact.
You just can’t escape the fact that Therese is so damn naive in all things and not just in what I’ve mentioned before. Then again, it’s established that she has made a habit of befriending strangers (you’ll find why that isn’t always a good thing).
But hey, let me not sit in judgment here and reveal any more. Watch the film. Make your own assumptions and presumptions. But do watch the film. While it isn’t as ‘explosive’ a story as the book once claimed to be, you’ll find that it is a love story society (at the time) forbade. A love story nonetheless and a rather beautiful, tender one at that. Rather tastefully done, Mr. Haynes!