Hailed as a top Oscar contender this year in numerous categories—best director, film, actress, and cinematography—Carol (trailer) is the story of a wealthy but unhappily married woman (played by Cate Blanchett) who embarks on a relationship with a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) she meets by chance. Unquestionably, it’s a period piece (nice Packards!), written by author Patricia Highsmith, herself a lesbian, who wrote high-class mysteries like The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it would have had considerably more shock value—and prompted more audience reflection—in its 1952 novel version, The Price of Salt.
In a story set in that era and with the social class differences involved, there are lots of ways for this relationship to go wrong. Worse, with a husband willing to play his ace—custody of his and Carol’s four-year-old daughter Rindy—the stakes are high. Yet, I didn’t find this movie either engaging or revelatory. Of course Blanchett is terrific, as always, though even she may underplay the role of Carol through most of the film. Mara, as the initially childlike Therese Belivet, is so indeterminate that it’s hard to root for her happiness (what would that require, exactly?) and even harder to see what the glamorous, sophisticated Carol sees in her. Perhaps director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy hoped that, by making Mara more or less a cipher, viewers would be free to pin their own romantic hopes and dreams on her.
In the New York Times, critic A.O.Scott calls Carol “a study in human magnetism, in the physics and optics of eros . . . (giving) emotional and philosophical weight to what might be a perfectly banal question: What do these women see each in each other.” That was my question, all right. Therese says she is almost will-less, that the complications in her life arise because all she ever does is say “yes,” and the film takes on the challenge of imbuing her most important affirmation with real meaning. In a season where we’ve seen so many excellent high-drama films, this one, to me, did less than I would have liked it to. I’d give it a B-.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences: 79%.