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With: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Kyle Chandler
Written by: Phyllis Nagy, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Directed by: Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language
Running Time: 118
Date: 11/20/2015

Carol (2015)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Salty Tears

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt was published early, her second novel after Strangers on a Train, under a pseudonym; it told the story of a passionate romance between two women, a subject that, of course, could get the author into trouble back in 1952. That factoid alone is probably enough for some film critics to elevate the film version, Carol, into something important. It's all about how brave Highsmith was, and how brave her two characters are for following their hearts in a time when such things were frowned upon. However, these seem like external circumstances to me, and not actual factors of the filmmaking. I think Carol is a very fine film, but I also think that there are a few factors that keep it from being great.

Rooney Mara stars as Therese Belivet, who works in the toy section of a department store in New York at Christmastime. When the glamorous Carol (Cate Blanchett) walks in, Therese can hardly take her eyes from her. Carol buys a train set for her daughter, and accidentally leaves her gloves on the counter. Therese returns them, and the women begin a relationship, a little tentative, a little careful, but not without passion and adoration. Meanwhile, Carol's husband makes demands on her and emotionally blackmails her with their daughter, and thus Carol and Therese hit the road for a little out-of-town time. Therese also practices her photography, taking beautiful B&W shots of the object of her affection. The road trip is interrupted, and Carol returns home to a nasty divorce, with the threat of losing her daughter.

Todd Haynes has directed Carol, from a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, with superb precision. It's like a glittering gem; its 1950s design is perfect, especially the Christmas decorations. The score by Carter Burwell is perfect, and the cinematography by Edward Lachman is lush and soft, recalling 1950s cinematic color palettes, but also capturing the passion and chilliness of the story. The performances by Mara and Blanchett -- as well as a great supporting cast including Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson (and a tiny appearance by Carrie Brownstein) -- can hardly be improved upon.

I liked watching this movie, and nearly every frame of it pleased me. But something still nagged at me. There's the "cold" quality of Highsmith's work, which has to do with her special affinity for pathological protagonists. No, the real problem for me was one of expectations. To me, Haynes is one of our great directors, and with his best films, Safe (1995), Far from Heaven (2002), and I'm Not There (2007), he managed both touchingly emotional explorations of human behavior as well as structural commentaries of the same. They were brilliant achievements that worked on all levels. Carol works beautifully, but only on one level; it's a great adaptation of a novel by a great writer, and that's a lot, but that's all. Haynes doesn't seem to have anything to say about Highsmith or movies adapted from Highsmith's novels, or the time period. He evokes the 1950s in a lovely way, but doesn't necessarily apply the movies of the 1950s to the situation in the story, as he did so satisfyingly with Far from Heaven.

For anyone unfamiliar with Haynes' previous work, it's possible to walk into Carol and see a great film. I admit that my problem is entirely personal, stemming from my personal relationship with Haynes' work. He has done fine work here, but I know he can do better.

Anchor Bay's 2016 Blu-ray release beautifully captures this movie's luscious cinematography. It's very much worth checking out (and, indeed, it could be an annual Christmas favorite for many viewers). Bonuses include a series of short, studio-produced EPKs, and a half-hour series of Q&As with Haynes, Blanchett, Mara, and writer Nagy (one of them hosted by my friend and colleague Dave Fear). It comes with several trailers on startup (Macbeth, Southpaw, and Burnt).

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