Most movies conjure less romance, passion, adoration, and eroticism within their entire running time than Carol achieves with just a simple caress. The trick, of course, is that the caress isn’t simple at all. This tale of forbidden love between two women living different lives in 50s New York asks much of its actors because the very relationship itself has to remain hush-hush. Director Todd Haynes, master of meticulousness, observes the love story as subtly as it unfolds.

This makes for an incredibly complex filmmaking strategy because cinematic romance relies on intimacy and yet Haynes considers it paramount that he portray the quiet secrecy that shrouds the relationship from the public world, drastically reducing the opportunities to generate moments of intimate exchange. It’s an integral aspect of the experience because it continually and with astonishing depth reinforces a sense of otherness, of loneliness and isolation and having to mask one’s actual feelings to conform to social strictures.

The trade-off then should be that the relationship itself is too buried under nuance to actually make an impactful impression, but in Haynes’ hands, that isn’t the case at all. Haynes exhibits complete faith in his lead actresses to powerfully communicate their love for each other with often no more than a glance or a touch. When Cate Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese share a lunch together, either in an upscale restaurant or a downhome diner, their body language says more than the dialogue understandably permits.

They’re getting to know each other as any two interested potential partners are wont to do, but they have to hide their feelings that boil just beneath the surface of conversation. Haynes frames these moments beautifully and hauntingly, capturing a lunch scene with the two on opposite ends of a restaurant booth by shooting the characters in mirroring over-the-shoulder shots that push them together and into the corner of the screen. He leaves so much open space where essentially nothing of importance is happening at all, but it’s far from an empty flourish. This approach visually and concisely communicates how Carol and Therese have to hide their true selves away from prying eyes.

To say so much with just a knowing tweak of a very traditional shot type speaks volumes about Haynes’ ability to put us inside the shoes of the characters and yet also comprehend the surrounding space in cinematic terms. He continues these types of compositions throughout the picture and this reinforcement of imagery-as-experience lends the drama a striking intensity. When coupled with his two lead actresses, his style adopts a powerful edge that sends the stakes soaring skyward. These characters may have just found something spectacular if only ignorance and bigotry don’t ruin it before its formed.

Obviously, actors need to forge a special connection onscreen to make love stories work, but Carol takes such expectations to another level. Blanchett and Mara are so good that it almost seems unfair to merely slap some glowing adjectives on their performances and leave it at that. These are shattering turns, acting as unshakably honest artful expression, proof once again that Blanchett is truly one of the greats and that Mara has it in her to deliver a performance of such caliber that we may as well just call it what it is: perfect.

There’s a moment when Therese gets on a train to head home after briefly visiting Carol at her lavish home. It’s early on in their relationship and nothing more than a few chaste glances have been exchanged at this point. The visit was going well until Carol’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, all bruised anger and disheveled masculinity) turned up unexpectedly and killed the moment. Now Therese has been shuffled off to the train, an abrupt end to the evening. She sits down in her seat and as people happily board the train around her, she starts to cry.

There is not a line of dialogue or a shred of personal information that would seem to suggest or support this emotional breakdown. It’s all on Mara to sell the moment. Therese is so introverted and quiet that we initially know next to nothing about what she thinks of this whole friendship with Carol or if she’s expecting more, hoping for more. And sure, the night ended on a sour note, but until that moment when Therese starts to cry, we can’t possibly comprehend exactly what this situation means to her and what it’s doing to her.

So the tears fall and it’s a moment so tenderly moving because we see that Haynes trusted Mara to hit us with that sudden peeling back of the curtain that normally shrouds Therese’s feelings and we see that Mara is delivering a performance of tremendous depth. How many characters in romantic movies have cried on trains as they temporarily leave their lover? This moment with Therese should be an austere spin on a worn cliché at best and yet it’s one of the most vitally important and narratively daring parts of a movie that always feels freshly conceived.

Every other moment in Carol benefits as well from the sumptuous grain of Edward Lachman’s era-appropriate photography, the pastel palette of Judy Becker’s production design, and the mournful notes of Carter Burwell’s score. The skill and artistry that bring the 50s period to life and create the stifling conditions that Carol and Therese must deal with to survive is stunning, incredible individual achievements that all complement each other so carefully and connectively.

Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, is another wonder. It’s a compact, delicate piece of writing that smartly attends to the various supporting characters in ways that better develop the leads. The romance is built slowly and cautiously while the sense of secrecy intensifies. Dialogue flits poetically between bare-bones exchanges and abstract musings as Carol and Therese become quietly acquainted with each other.

Every collaborative element works in tandem with the others to triumphantly tell a love story that requires incredible control and restraint on the part of its director and cast.

What Haynes, Mara, and Blanchett accomplish in the end with a stare and a subtle smile is the very epitome of what cinema can most exquisitely achieve when concerned with romance. It’s the look that lasts a few seconds, less than a hundred frames, and yet also endures forever. The simultaneous sensation of the here, the now, and the mysterious future beyond captures both the spontaneity of human experience and the personal eternity of memories and moments that we hold ever dear.

Carol is about love across the divide and across the room, about longing and purpose and the irony of only being comfortable in a situation that society considers wrong. And then it’s just a look. Locked eyes that speak silently, distilling all the emotion and feeling down to their purest base. You can’t bottle romantic chemistry, but as Haynes so humbly, humanely attests, you sure can film it.

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