“Carol,” the latest shimmering masterwork from openly gay director Todd Haynes, is like a cinematic Fabergé egg. It’s stunning to look at, radiating light in all directions, but it’s also a little brittle and untouchable. It’s definitely a must-see movie, but it doesn’t quite reach the sublime standard Haynes set with his previous movie, “Far From Heaven.”
Like it, “Carol” tells the story of a forbidden love using the vibrant palette of 1950’s Technicolor romances. But, unlike “Far From Heaven’s” cinematic roots, “Carol’s” pedigree is literary. It’s based on the 1952 lesbian romance “The Price of Salt” by bisexual author Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote the homoerotic thrillers “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train.” Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel was remarkable for not killing off any of its queer characters. Instead, the novel closes with the tantalizing and groundbreaking possibility that the lesbian lovers will reunite and build a life together.
Phyllis Nagy’s solid adaptation of the book retains the positive ending of the Highsmith novel, along with the passionate depiction of the physical relationship between the two women, something which is sadly still all too rare in mainstream Hollywood movies. The title character is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy Manhattan socialite who is battling for custody of her daughter Rindy as she divorces her staid husband Harge.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), an aspiring photographer, is working as a department store clerk when she meets Carol, who is buying a Christmas present for her daughter. Carol leaves her supple leather gloves lying on the counter, and the two begin a passionate relationship when Therese arranges for their return.
Blanchett’s performance as Carol is stunning, but her crystalline manner rarely catches fire. Her languid beauty is mesmerizing (How could Therese ever resist her? How could Harge bear to lose her?), but she all too frequently remains controlled and aloof.
One stunning exception occurs when Carol and Harge meet with their divorce lawyers. Carol eloquently pleads for civility in their new relationship. “We’re not ugly people,” she says. The moment throbs with raw emotion; it’s a complicated primal plea for decency and dignity and respect and tolerance. The movie might have reached untapped depths if only Haynes and Blanchett allowed Carol a few more moments that shattered the character’s lovely façade and laid bare the submerged passions that simmer beneath.
There is also something remote about Rooney Mara’s performance as Therese. Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network”) creates a compelling character, but her Therese only ignites intermittently, most notably when she is behind the lens of her camera. Perhaps what Therese needs is a more clearly defined antagonist.
Blanchett and Mara are given excellent support by Sarah Paulson’s superb performance as Abby Gerhard, Carol’s best friend and former lover. Providing steadfast sympathy and solid support, her character helps stabilize the story, just as Paulson (“American Horror Story”) helps anchor the film.
“Carol” always looks splendid and the décor is flawless. Haynes and his wonderful design team work together seamlessly to capture the glamorous and gritty period detail, nicely contrasting Carol’s wealthy surroundings with Therese’s working-class environs. Cinematographer Edward Lachman’s Technicolor palette is rich and revelatory, highlighting the fine work of the visual team. Composer Carter Burwell’s lush score adds further depth and momentum to the film.
Todd Haynes brings all of these pieces together with a firm hand. His sense of pacing is as assured as his sense of style. But unfortunately “Carol” only occasionally fulfills its great promise.