Great performances drive romance in 'Carol'

 
 
Updated 12/23/2015 11:48 AM
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  • Therese (Rooney Mara), left, meets the elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett) in Todd Haynes' 1952 romance "Carol."

    Therese (Rooney Mara), left, meets the elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett) in Todd Haynes' 1952 romance "Carol."

We first see Carol when Therese, a young sales clerk, spots her across the busy floor of a New York department store in 1952.

Carol, several years older than Therese, appears impeccably dressed and coifed.

Measured in speech and gesture.

Elegant and friendly, yet, almost imperceptively guarded.

The two women talk.

Therese helps her select a Christmas present for her child.

Carol departs, inadvertently leaving behind a pair of expensive, leather gloves.

Inadvertently?

Nothing much happens during this scene. Except everything.

In Todd Haynes' leisurely paced, meticulously mounted period romance "Carol," you must look carefully to see the fireworks going off.

Rooney Mara, who catapulted to fame as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's English remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," plays Therese.

Chameleonic veteran actress Cate Blanchett plays Carol.

In a 1952 drama about lesbian lovers from different sides of the social tracks, subtlety is everything, and both Blanchett and Mara control their growing combustibility with unnerving will power.

Their emotionally synchronized performances in "Carol" -- based on Patricia Highsmith's saucy (for the time) 1952 novel "The Price of Salt" -- marks the raison d'être to see Haynes' "Carol."

Plopping us into a pre-Eisenhower-era America where shimmering gray-turquoise cars and midcentury costumes visually pop on the silver screen, the props and artifacts seem so authentic that we might think "Carol" was really shot in 1952 and only recently discovered.

"Carol" serves as a cinematic bookend of sorts to Haynes' excellent 1950s-set "Far From Heaven," with Dennis Quaid leading a double life as a married homosexual businessman.

In this drama, Carol's true nature is not so secret.

Her marriage to a blustery, heterosexual successful businessman named Harge (Kyle Chandler) is teetering on the edge after her affair with her longtime friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson).

Harge demands a divorce. He wants custody of their little daughter.

Carol knows her husband holds all the legal cards he needs to destroy her, dump her and deny her not only joint-custody, but visitation rights as well. And Carol can't live with that.

She must be very careful.

Yet, the heart wants what the heart wants.

Carol invites Therese into her cultured world of privilege and prestige. While Harge and her daughter are away, Carol takes Therese on a cross-country trip where nature takes its own course.

When Mara and Blanchett get together, you can feel the palpable chemistry between these characters who, for better, not worse, do what they can to achieve guarded happiness during a time in which Hollywood decreed that gays and lesbians must come to horrible ends for their moral transgressions, or at least have their behavior be condemned as aberrant.

"Carol" is a movie for patrons with patience. It does not bounce along at a jaunty clip. If anything, it takes more time than necessary for an authentic relationship to develop.

From Highsmith's bold story, Haynes fashions a remarkable study of emotions brought to life by two of the best movie performances of the year.

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