Todd Haynes' "Carol" Is Mostly A Visual, Dramatic Delight

If sexual tension were an energy source, the first 90 minutes of romantic drama “Carol” could power a small city for weeks on end. If only it had a denouement to match.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price Of Salt, Todd Haynes’ film is a profoundly sensual one, teeming with sumptuous visuals and quiet moments of desire. Although concerned with sex, it isn’t about sex. Rather, “Carol” focuses its attention on the tribulations that come with all proclamations of love – let alone forbidden ones.

The movie is inclusive and incisive while also functioning as a striking snapshot of a place and time and injustices that are only just being righted now, more than 60 years later.

Haynes is practically daring other filmmakers to summon a more immersive period setting than he does here. This isn’t a peek into the 50s; it is the 50s, a filmic time warp that gets nearly everything right down to its film stock (Super 16 mm). There are but a few anachronisms that only the most eagle-eyed of viewers will catch.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star as Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, respectively, the former a thirty-something mother and socialite, the latter a college-aged department store clerk. Their relationship begins under relatively mundane circumstances, with Carol leaving her gloves behind at Therese’s register after a subtly flirtatious exchange.

Carol, mother of one, is party to a rocky marriage with Harge Aird (Kyle Chandler), ever teetering on the edge of divorce. Therese is less boxed in but just as exasperated, treading water in an equally loveless heterosexual relationship and a photography career that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

The pairing of Carol and Therese makes no sense and all the sense at the same time, the duo complementing each other in ways neither thought possible. Lurking underneath it all? A desire for normalcy, something denied to them by the world at large over and over again.

Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay carves out a significant corner for a child custody battle between Carol and Harge, to mixed results. By the time Carol’s denied charge of her daughter due to “aberrant behavior,” the film is at its most agonizing, rebuffing all signs of a possible happy ending.

But the picture is just as much about Therese, a design that belies its title and conflates Carol’s custody battle with her newfound romance (they’re related but distinct). That the latter peters out in act three ends up an even bigger stumbling block.

The way Haynes masterfully builds up the tension between the two is magic, but when the touch barrier is finally broken the story never quite regains its footing. It’s an incredible emotional crescendo, as dramatic an onscreen romance as any, but the two becoming physical ushers in the inevitable hiss of air escaping tires.

The period trappings remain impeccable throughout, though, crackling even when the script doesn’t. And Blanchett and Mara are predictably terrific. The third only act feels like a letdown because of what came before: a flawless hour and change of romantic drama adorned with the best period work of 2015.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 20, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
MPAA Rating: R (For a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language)