Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett Capture The Gorgeousness Of Falling In Love In Carol

Photo: Courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
“I barely even know what to order for lunch.”

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) giggles these words on her first date with Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) in Todd Haynes’ new film Carol. Carol, a suburban woman in the midst of a divorce, sits down and quickly orders a martini and poached eggs over creamed spinach. Therese, a shopgirl, is baffled and decides to order the same thing.

I've certainly been in that situation, and I’m sure others have, too. It’s easy when you’re young and impressionable to simply copy the lunch order of the person you admire or desire. This is where Therese begins in the film. It is not, however, where she ends. Carol is surprisingly hopeful in its portrayal of a lesbian couple falling in love during the holiday season in 1952 and '53. In that first meeting, Carol finds Therese “strange.” She calls her someone “flung out of space.” By the end of the film, Therese finds her place in the world.

Carol is yet another entry in a banner year for films that deal with young women coming of age, joining this summer's The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Brooklyn, out in November.

Just as Carol draws Therese into her orbit, Carol draws the audience into the early-1950s setting. The film looks like an Edward Hopper painting. It’s consciously cinematic — the way smoke billows from subway grates has a noirish quality — but the drama that plays out doesn't match the heightened emotions of, say, Sunset Boulevard, which the characters watch on-screen. Blanchett is warm and bold as the title character. Unlike the barely-holding-it together woman whom we saw the actress play in Blue Jasmine, this is someone who projects confidence, even when it comes at her own expense. Mara, meanwhile, captures the eagerness of infatuation and the openness of someone who hasn’t quite decided who she is.

Though the film may tell the story of a lesbian relationship, it's not exactly a "message movie" about acceptance. As screenwriter Phyllis Nagy told Refinery29 earlier this year, the characters have "no guilt over having that kind of desire." When Carol premiered in Cannes, Richard Lawson wrote in Vanity Fair that it is "less a movie about a particular relationship than it is a broader testament to the nobility of coming out, the struggle and dignity and value in it." Carol, we learn, doesn't deny her desires. Therese, meanwhile, faces the task of defining her own.

At the outset, Therese takes photographs, but doesn’t seem to really consider herself a photographer. (In the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the movie is based, Therese is an aspiring set designer.) She is averse, she tells a male friend, to photographing people, and is more intent to turn her focus on animals and inanimate objects. Being with Carol forces Therese to truly look at another person, and therefore herself. Therese doesn't deny her attraction to Carol. Being attracted to Carol, however, helps her decide who she wants to be.

Haynes’ film plays with reflection. There are reflections in mirrors, in car windows, even in doppelgangers on New York streets. Carol speaks to the power of finding your reflection in another person, and how it can lead to self-actualization.

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