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Carol is the most beautiful movie of the year

This swooning love story charts a relationship between two women in 1950s New York.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett meet for the first time in Carol.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett meet for the first time in Carol.
The Weinstein Company
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It wasn't until the final shot of Carol that I realized how tightly the film — which hits theaters November 20 — had wrapped me in its web.



I knew I was interested. I knew I was moved. And I knew I was invested in the characters' story. But I didn't know how enraptured I'd become until director Todd Haynes's camera caught just the slightest flicker of movement across a woman's face, her lips curling into the faintest hint of a smile.

And then I stumbled out of the theater, a little woozy and gobsmacked by both the power of what I'd seen and its restrained grace. It felt like I was surfacing after a long time underwater, as if I had swum to the surface too swiftly and developed the bends.

I love movies. I look for the best in everything I see — even the stinkers. But it's rare for one to send me so completely over the moon.

Yet here was Carol, and it had me eating out of its hand.

Carol is a moving love story that doubles as something very specific

Cate Blanchett in Carol.
Cate Blanchett plays the titular character in the mesmerizing new Carol.
The Weinstein Company

Carol centers on two women who meet in early 1950s New York, fall in love on a road trip out West (to nowhere in particular), and upon their return must deal with the fallout of being two women in love in early 1950s New York — where a word to define what we think of as "lesbian" barely even exists.

The title character is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey housewife whose bewildered husband knows of her relationships with women but thinks he can still make her love him by endlessly reminding her of propriety and her duties as a wife and mother. But she finds herself entranced by Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young shopgirl who's clearly never pursued a relationship with another woman before.

Their love isn't just driven by the usual physical attraction and discovery of compatibility, though that's present. It's also driven by a kind of obsession, as Carol leaves her gloves at Therese's desk, clearly hoping the younger woman might return them. Their courtship plays out as a kind of extended ritual, circling closer and closer to actual physical contact, like an approximation of the coded same-sex relationships and desires that existed in films of the era Carol depicts.

What Haynes — who previously visited the 1950s in Far From Heaven and a slightly earlier era in HBO's Mildred Pierce miniseries — does so well is frame images so that we can see how both Carol and Therese have become the only thing the other cares about, even if they're not quite aware of it yet. He filmed the movie on Super 16 mm film, which gives it a slightly gauzy, fuzzy feeling that beautifully approximates those first few days of falling in love and feeling like you might never stop tumbling.

But he also illustrates how possible it is for those in LGBTQ relationships to feel isolated, alone on an island that's separate from even the one that honeymooning couples tend to discover themselves upon. In the world of Carol, same-sex relationships are carried out via clandestine code and signal. For almost the entire film, Therese isn't even out to herself, until she suddenly is, and the world reorients itself around her.

The film is based on a hugely important novel

Cate Blanchett, Todd Haynes, Carol
Blanchett discusses the filming of a scene with director Todd Haynes.
The Weinstein Company

Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The book, which was a massive success, became famous as the one novel of its time to feature lesbians who weren't afflicted with a psychiatric disorder. Indeed, its fame stemmed from the fact that it had a happy ending. (Whether that ending remained intact in the film, I will not say.)

Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy — a longtime confidant of Highsmith — has adapted the novel to the screen in a fashion that captures some of the purple dialogue and prose common to the era but just as often sets it aside for safe small talk, beneath which burbles deep currents of longing.

Haynes and his technical crew capture this undertow through careful choices in framing and production design. Spot color in Sandy Powell's costumes highlight just what (and whom) we're supposed to be looking at. Edward Lachman's cinematography ensures that every tiny moment of physical interaction between Carol and Therese is perfectly proportioned for its import to the action of the story. Carter Burwell's score swells exactly when it needs to swell.

In particular, pay attention to the way Haynes and company utilize the motif of hands moving along a human body. Carol's hands drift along Therese's shoulders as Therese plays piano. In later scenes, she lowers them slightly, touching Therese's elbow or arm. At all times, the camera follows these moments in close-up, reading a hand's touch like it might otherwise read a minute shift in facial expression in a more traditional shot.

By the time the camera drifts over the pair's naked bodies, entwined in sleep, we've been trained to notice these things. The shoulder touch and the naked embrace hold the same level of power, because they are equally welcomed by these women and equally forbidden by the world they live in.

The acting is terrific, too

Rooney Mara!
This is Rooney Mara's best work.
The Weinstein Company

It's probably no surprise to hear that Blanchett is tremendous in Carol. She's perhaps the finest living actor of the moment, able to transform any role, no matter how rotten the movie, into something living and breathing and vital. And yet Carol Aird might be her finest performance. Blanchett constructs a woman so accustomed to living in these kinds of codes that she's become a statue that emotes only when she has no other choice.

Mara's work is no less revelatory, and she's constantly revealing new ways that Therese's seeming naiveté is a false front she uses to distract from her true aims. Sarah Paulson only appears in a few key scenes as a former lover of Carol's who has now become her closest friend, but she presents a brittle strength of her own.

Kyle Chandler (as Carol's husband) and Jake Lacy (as Therese's boyfriend) are well-cast, as both can evoke a kind of sympathy for how little they understand why they can never be with the women they love, while also slipping, at a moment's notice, into a representation of the society that would rather keep the two lovers apart. (Chandler, in particular, is crucial for this — you have to believe he would never physically hurt Carol but would destroy her in other ways.)

What's key, though, is that Carol isn't some movie about overcoming societal misconceptions about lesbians in 1950s New York. There are hints of the kind of damage Carol and Therese might suffer if their relationship became public, and there are moments when characters threaten to do just that, but the film never pushes these ideas to their breaking points.

It is, instead, a love story — one in which the word "lesbian" is never once uttered. This is not a film about a political movement or cause, except obliquely. It is, instead, a movie about a revolution of the self, a story about a young woman who starts the film unable to say who she is and ends it able to say that she is many things — a friend, a photographer, and someone who loved deeply another woman named Carol.

Carol is playing in limited release. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come.