CANNES – A look across a crowded room. A hand on a shoulder, slightly longer than expected. A conversation of code words. In the McCarthy era, gay men and women were forced to follow societal norms, with even the most “obvious” gays and lesbians trapped in the closet. It is in this context that we are introduced to department store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and her new customer, the somewhat older Ms. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) in Todd Haynes' adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, “Carol.”
It's almost Christmas and Carol is hunting for a specific doll for her young daughter. The store is out of the model she needs. Carol quizzes Therese on what she always wanted to get for Christmas. There are glances, there is light flirting and Carol “mistakenly” leaves her gloves on Therese's counter.
This advance is both forward and subtle, which puzzles Therese, but also excites her at the same time. Soon she mails back the missing gloves and that leads to a “thank you” lunch and, eventually, a Sunday visit to Carol's suburban home. Unbeknownst to Therese is the fact that Carol and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) are in the middle of what will soon be a nasty custody battle. Carol no longer wants to live a lie, but being unable to see her daughter is something she simply cannot fathom. Of course, Therese has her own problem in Richard (Jake Lacy), a boyfriend who can't seem to recognize his girlfriend is not reciprocating his love.
Soon the ladies figure out how to convey their mutual attraction without actually saying it. (Although at one point Carol breathlessly says to Therese, “Ask me anything,” seemingly daring her to say the words.) Distraught over Hages legal maneuvering, Carol decides to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip out west and she has little problem convincing Therese to drop everything and join her. It's a welcome escape from the real world and the ladies soon consummate their love in a scene that is 100 times more realistic that the sex scenes in 2013 Palme d”Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Their nirvana is short lived, however, once Hage forces Carol to return to the city.
We won”t spoil the turn “Carol” takes from there, but only the combined talents of both Blanchett and Mara can make the film's powerfully realized finale work. Carol may have a little bit of Jasmine”s pretentiousness from “Blue Jasmine” or Meredith Logue's privileged charm from “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” but she has an inherent patience those characters lack. Blanchett is at her best when fighting for her daughter and you can already pick out the awards season clips.
Mara's typically cold demeanor helps her here. It's not because lesbians should be portrayed frigidly – that would be a huge mistake. Instead, it allows her to play Therese's hidden passion for Carol, a passion festering just beneath the surface. Blanchett may have the showier part, but without Mara's subtle work here we simply wouldn't root for the couple to end up together.
In many ways this is familiar territory for Haynes. He explored the forbidden love dynamic in the 1950s-set “Far From Heaven,” as well as female protagonists rebelling against societal constraints in the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” It's easy to tell see confident he is with the material, but Phyllis Nagy”s screenplay makes things slightly bumpy at times.
In the novel, Therese dreamed of becoming a theater set designer, but the movie changes that to a love of photography. You can understand why as this provides Haynes with a nice visual motif to work with. However, while Therese needs to blossom after meeting Carol, too much energy is spent setting up her new gig at the Paper of Record (which is slightly unbelievable even for 1953). Considering the intricate detail to so many other elements of the film, this feels, again, bumpy.
Edward Lachman was the director of photography on both “Heaven” and “Pierce,” earning an Oscar nomination for the former. The longtime collaborators differentiate “Carol's” aesthetic by giving it less polish and making the image intentionally grainier. Production designer Judy Becker (“American Hustle”), meanwhile, assists by using Cincinnati locations to recreate a grittier New York that still feels stuck in the 40s and far removed from the modern glass towers that will soon populate the city.
Costume designer Sandy Powell continues her masterful work by dressing Carol in purposefully muted red and green dresses that hint at a woman unable to let her true spirit fly. The three-time Oscar winner also contributes to Therese's transformation by initially dressing her with somewhat beatnik-esque ensembles, until she eventually wears print dresses that owe something to Chanel couture at the time.
Frankly, Carter Burwell, another Haynes regular, can be hit or miss here. As the film movies along, his score for “Carol” initially disappoints as it repeats the same theme again and again (and certainly not a memorable one). Somewhere in the third act, however, the film becomes unburdened by it. And much to the composer's credit, the final scene simply could not work without the soaring place Burwell is willing to take it.
Among the supporting cast, Sarah Paulson is superb as Carol's longtime best friend Abby Gerhard and the aforementioned Chandler channels Hage's internal conflict over the fate of their daughter. Cory Michael Smith also delivers some much-needed comic relief as a mysterious salesman the ladies meet on their cross-country excursion.
There have been many films over the past 25 years that have touched upon the gay experience. Some have reached mainstream audiences and others have not. “Carol” is not a game changer in this regard. Truthfully, its inherent subtlety means it will not blow broad audiences away. What it is, however, is a stark and moving reminder of the societal persecution gays and lesbians faced for a majority of the 20th Century, injustices that still haunt many parts of the United States and too many countries around the world. If the beautiful work Blanchett, Mara and Haynes have created here can enlighten one mind, “Carol” will have found a meaningful calling beyond its artistic achievements. And that”s pretty powerful, isn't it?
“Carol” will open in limited release on Dec. 18.
Note: An earlier version of this review noted that the production designer was Mark Friedberg. Both this review and, it appears, IMDB have been updated to reflect proper credit to Judy Becker.