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      Carol Review

      Carol poster


      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      By now, the critical reception for director Todd Haynes' "Carol" has built a fortress of prestige around the film itself, much as the title character played by Cate Blanchett goes through her life protected by just the right clothes and makeup, a lacquered, tightly put-together look ever-so-slightly subverting the image of the quintessential wife and mother of her time and station.

      On the fortress wall there are signs declaring this adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Price of Salt" an important love story, a shattering and beautiful experience, featuring Oscar-worthy performances from Blanchett and Rooney Mara, etc. This is awards season, after all. The Weinstein Co. is keen to position "Carol" as a player.

      In fact, this excellent film works the way Blanchett's characterization of Carol works: It's meticulous about appearances, while fully aware that appearances can deceive. The movie's emotions are not flagrant or the fulminating sort. With a few minor exceptions (we'll get to those later), practically every decision in the writing, casting, direction and editing of "Carol" was the right one. Like Highsmith's remarkable novel (the rare lesbian love story of its time with an optimistic coda), it neither unduly ennobles its key characters nor confines them to butch/femme sexual archetypes. It's about two people in a highly fraught, highly charged situation, and it's one of the best films of 2015.

      Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy's masterstroke was simple. In the novel, the wonder-struck object of Carol's affection was an aspiring scenic designer. In the film the character, Therese Belivet, is instead a talented photographer, quietly developing her craft on the side, watching other lives while her own remains a blank only partly filled by a pleasant but bland boyfriend (Jake Lacy).

      By day, Therese works as a Manhattan department store clerk and isn't much good at it. "Carol" opens around Christmastime. At the toy counter one day, wearing the obligatory elf hat, she spies a customer eyeing her across a crowded floor, just as the song from "South Pacific" described it. Seconds later, the customer is standing inches in front of Therese, and Carol inquires about a gift for her daughter. The connection is made, the train set is purchased and Carol leaves her elegant gloves behind, perhaps by accident, perhaps not.

      Carol lives a life of comfort that fits her like a straitjacket. Her husband (Kyle Chandler) knows of his wife's bisexual past. (Sarah Paulson plays Carol's best friend and ex-lover.) The husband, Harge, knows the marriage is twisting in the wind. Therese, 19 in Highsmith's novel and a bit older in the film, is a woman waiting for something to happen. Carol is that something. "Flung out of space" is how Carol describes the "strange" girl now a part of her life. The relationship flowers on a road trip west, shadowed perpetually by the knowledge that Carol's custody of her daughter hangs in the balance of this forbidden love.

      Daring for the time, Highsmith's novel nonetheless kept a lid on the most intimate aspects of that love. Haynes' film removes that lid partway, so that when they do get together, the encounter is discreet yet sexually frank enough to bridge the story's era as well as a 21st-century retelling of that story. Like the film "Brooklyn," likewise concerning a recessive-seeming female protagonist working in early '50s New York City retail, "Carol" evokes the past on a modest but extremely crafty production budget. The film was shot entirely in and around Cincinnati, mostly using existing (not built) locales. Production designer Judy Becker and top-flight costume designer Sandy Powell refer visually to the period photographs of Saul Leiter, Ruth Orkin, Vivian Maier and others.

      So many images to remember, and to take our minds off Donald Trump and ISIS and all the homegrown terrorists for a couple of hours. At the movies this year, we found moments of quiet beauty, even amid skillful corporate product (re-) launches such as "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." It's not a Top 10 contender, but the following films make up for its exclusion.

      The real ace, however, is cinematographer Ed Lachman, who shot "Carol" on Super 16 millimeter film. The colors are slightly muted, so that when a highly saturated element hits the screen (Carol's orange-red nails, for example), it's noticed, and it means something extra. Composer Carter Burwell's quietly insistent music urges on the story in a style recalling Philip Glass. (He's having a great year; his music for "Anomalisa" is even better.)

      Haynes' meticulous eye and steady hand allow the performances to dominate. Since seeing the film in May at the Cannes Film Festival and in a second viewing more recently, I've wondered if everything Blanchett does is scaled correctly. Some moments feel a little big, in an outsize theatrical way. (It was certainly true of her Oscar-winning work in "Blue Jasmine.") And yet, Blanchett's a formidable technician, a performer of serious wit and fire. She serves "Carol" well and truly throughout. Mara, who won the best actress award at Cannes, initially takes the more passive character, and half the time you don't know what Therese is really thinking, just as you're intrigued by Mara's ability to hold back, keep us guessing.

      Highsmith's love story came from a passing encounter in her own, brief life as a department store temp. The inspired bookend structure of the film version came not from screenwriter Nagy but from director Haynes. It comes from Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter." We see the same scene from utterly different perspectives, at the beginning and very near the end. The telling detail is a hand on a shoulder, also shown twice, with two different hands. Like so much of this film, it's concise, revealing and beautifully managed. Highsmith would've very likely loved it.

      MPAA rating: R (for a scene of nudity/sexuality and brief language).

      Running time: 1:58

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