Carol is a gorgeous, well-acted film with a cold, intellectual heart 

A Cerebral Soap Opera

click to enlarge Therese Belivet (Mara Rooney) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) begin their romance in a department store

Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Therese Belivet (Mara Rooney) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) begin their romance in a department store

I've watched Todd Haynes' Carol twice now, and while I liked it better the second time — and think I misjudged one aspect of it the first time — I'm still not on board with the love-fest over it.

Oh, it's a good movie. It's an appealing work on many levels. Certainly, it's gorgeous to look at in all its glorious 1952 period detail and tastefully burnished color, all enhanced by Carter Burwell's musical score. The mannered, classical look of the filmmaking is in itself a treat. Moreover, Rooney Mara's performance is a delicious blend of unworldly naïveté and understanding more than the era and her background should deem possible.

And then there's Cate Blanchett haughtily — and effectively — sailing through the film with the kind of movie-star chic quality we don't really see much of anymore. (I think that sense has bearing on a lot of the acclaim the film has gotten.) She walks into the frame and effortlessly just takes over.

But there's still something missing here for me. Carol stirs my intellect and my aesthetic sense, but it never really touches me emotionally. That's a significant drawback for what is essentially a soap opera — a cerebral, classy one with a lesbian angle, but still a soap opera (that is not a slam).

The first time I saw the film my reaction was that it was Todd Haynes making another ersatz Douglas Sirk-Ross Hunter 1950s soaper, much like he did with Far from Heaven back in 2002. (That in itself isn't entirely fair to Far from Heaven.) And I think that was wrong. It doesn't really look like one of those generally overlit 1950s movies. It has its own look — that of a movie taking place in 1952, not of a movie made in 1952. But more to the point, the tone is different. There's no sense of mocking the audience the way there is in the Sirk movies, no sense that the filmmaker feels superior to the material. And there is certainly no glitz for its own sake. Carol is more akin to the work of John M. Stahl in the 1930s. Like Stahl's films, Carol is straightforward, while Haynes shows that he honestly believes in the material. I like that. I admire that. I only wish it connected with me more emotionally than it does.

Carol was adapted by Phyllis Nagy from a novel, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, which in itself was Ms. Highsmith's imagining of what might have been had there been any follow-through after a moment she shared with a shop girl in a department store. (In itself, that's a pretty romantic idea for a book.) In the film, we're introduced to Carol Aird (Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Mara) when they're meeting at the Ritz late in their story — at a point where the significance of what we see is unclear. The film then returns to their first encounter in the toy department of a high-toned store around Christmas time. The two women are obviously attracted from the onset — something that is allowed a follow-up when Carol accidentally leaves her gloves behind on the counter. What follows details their romance, which will ultimately take us back to that first scene and beyond.

What distinguishes the film from a standard romantic drama is that it's a tale of same-sex romance that's taking place in a world far removed from our own — a world where such a relationship was barely even talked about. That means that not only is everything couched in code and insinuation for the world at large, but that both women are even cagey with each other about their desires. The nature of the flirtations and the courtship is fascinating, yet always recognizable for what's going on beneath the surface. But something about it keeps me at a distance — and, no, it's not just the somewhat trite dramatics that are used to propel the story. The truth is the only time I really felt anything was at the film's ending, which, in and of itself, is one of the finest things I saw all year. I only wish I felt that way about more of the film.

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