“Carol” – As I grow older, I more frequently hear from friends or colleagues, “Remember the good old days?”

Well, I usually refrain from wearing rose-colored glasses when examining the past.  For example, looking back at the 1950s:  the chickenpox vaccine did not exist, southern schools were segregated, tooth fillings were made of mercury, and gay relationships were considered taboo and kept in the closet.  “Carol” – starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – is set in the 1950s.

The film takes place in New York City, and amongst the bustle of the Christmas season, the below freezing temperatures and the occasional snow flurry, a romantic relationship develops between a wealthy woman in her late 30s/early 40s (Blanchett) and a department store clerk in her early 20s (Mara).   They first meet at the aforesaid department store when Therese (Mara) helps Carol (Blanchett) decide on a present for her son, but she “conveniently” leaves her gloves behind at the sales counter.  When Therese ensures the gloves get back to Carol, she invites her out to lunch as a thank you gesture.

Their time together quickly accelerates from there, and they both feel a pull towards one other, but do not verbally acknowledge it.   Due to her age and experience, Carol drives the decisions on the times and places that they meet, and Therese quietly smiles, agrees and feels happy to be alongside her new friend.   Almost everything about their friendship and budding romance bathes in subtly, and these two talented actresses communicate so much to each other through looks and expressions during routine conversations.

For instance, during their first lunch – which seems initially benign – Carol delicately studies Therese’s movements and says, “Maybe you’d like to come visit me sometime.  You’re welcome to.  At least there’s some pretty country where I live.   Would you like to come visit me this Sunday?”

Therese – with an ever so brief hesitation – then responds, “Yes.”

Although the exchange seems harmless and innocent, there is so much more with the characters’ facial expressions and mannerisms, and we can easily process their unspoken inner thoughts.   The film is filled with many such moments, and Carol and Therese carefully balance expressing their true feelings while simultaneously stifling them due to the day’s forbidden nature of these emotions.

The film’s tones greatly contrast with another recent movie about a new lesbian relationship, the 2013 French film “Blue is the Warmest Color”.   In the 2013 movie, a high school girl Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) enters into her first lesbian relationship with a more experienced woman named Emma (Lea Seydoux).   Emma is older, but very close in age with Adele, and the two women openly express themselves in a highly-charged environment.   The on-screen emotions pour like sizzling lava and crash like piercing thunderclaps, and the actresses offer spirited, believable and engaging performances.

Conversely, Carol and Therese walk a difficult, controlled and subdued tightrope act due to Carol’s active marital status with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and the forbidden nature of their loving relationship.    At the time, engaging in such relationships could result in the perceived need for psychiatric sessions.   So, they proceed with caution but do move forward and figuratively dance in their courtship in beautiful ways.

Not only are the performances beautiful, but the movie itself looks gorgeous as well.   Costumes and accessories – like Therese’s multicolored winter hat and Carol’s manicured jackets and well-placed jewelry – stand out and pop.   The details feel rich and sophisticated within the stylish surroundings of affluent households, restaurants and parlors, and director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman were meticulous in encapsulating a 1950s atmosphere.  The movie feels like Haynes and Lachman captured it through some dreamlike, time warp haze.  Every scene does appear crystal clear, but “Carol” carries this magical, visual tone of a nostalgic era that is simply lovely to gaze upon.

Blanchett and Mara – who both earned Golden Globe Best Actress nominations –  are electric on-screen, and the exploration into their new relationship and differences in their characters’ previous experiences are captivating dynamics.    Carol and Therese operate in a time not always welcomed to them, but if they can survive the nature of their current environment, tomorrow could become the good new days.

Image credits: The Weinstein Company, StudioCanal; Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers

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