Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mata, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
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Right from Todd Haynes’ highly original 1991 feature, Poison, it was apparent that this was a natural director with a great feel for cinematic language. Haynes doesn’t exactly crank them out; he hasn’t made more than a handful of films since (Velvet Goldmine, Safe, Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), but all of them have been well worth watching. Carol is an honourable addition to his oeuvre.
As a gay man, Haynes understands implicitly how society’s disapproval creates all kinds of problems for same-sex attracted people. For years, people remained “in the closet” and falsified their emotional lives just to fit in. This was even more the case in America in the fifties, when the film (based on a Patricia Highsmith novel) is set. Beautiful but mousy Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works behind the counter of a posh department store in New York. When the stunning Carol (Cate Blanchett) waltzes into the shop, there is a sly but instant connection. Carol seems happy enough, but her marriage is flatlining, and she is now reckless or desperate enough to risk seducing the much younger Therese.
True to the spirit of Highsmith, domestic tensions hide something even more murderous underneath. At first, Carol feels that she can flout conventions, but she seriously underestimates the anger of those around her, and the lengths to which they will go. The film plays smoothly as period piece, but the sexual politics at its core are done with a light touch. Once again, Cate Blanchett is centre stage in a film-grabbing role. She doesn’t inhabit the part flawlessly though. Although her expressive face can register a dozen thoughts in a look, the physical passion is not very convincing. That said, it is a classy entertainment with a delicious combination of psychological manipulation and latent liberation.