TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new film "Carol" is set in the 1950s, and is the story of an affair between a middle-aged married woman, played by Cate Blanchett, and a young department store clerk played by Rooney Mara. It's directed by Todd Haynes, who's known for such films as "Poison," "Far From Heaven" and "I'm Not There," and the HBO miniseries "Mildred Pierce." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: It's hard to remember a movie that has friends of mine as over the moon as Todd Haynes' romantic, lesbian drama "Carol" - lesbians of course, but also semiotics majors and 1950s women's fashion enthusiasts. It's adapted from the novel "The Price Of Salt," by thriller writer Patricia Highsmith, who published it under a pseudonym and kept her lesbianism under wraps. Haynes has done more than dramatize her work. He has rekindled and glamorized the thrill of a once forbidden subculture. Highsmith wrote the novel after working over Christmas in the toy department of Bloomingdale's, where she caught sight of a fur-coated middle-aged woman who fired her imagination. In the film, Rooney Mara plays the demure Therese, who's styled to look like Audrey Hepburn - a wide-eyed gamine. And Cate Blanchett is the title character who lives in a New Jersey mansion with her child and her jealous, angry, soon-to-be ex-husband played by Kyle Chandler. Therese is smitten on sight and so is Carol, but this is, as they used to say, the love that dare not speak its name. And so the pair act in conventionally 50s ways, that Haynes - a semiotics major at Brown - would call coded. What that means is that they send the subtlest signals to each other, and you watch them closely, caught up in the criminal aspect, the naughty sense of transgression. Here's where Blanchett is perfect for Haynes. I've always felt her a bit artificial. But the tension between artifice and truth is the heart of the performance. Her face is a mask of glamour with those spectacular, high, rounded cheekbones and languid, feline eyes. She looks as expensive as her furs and taupe, Packard automobile. Breaking through that mask are tiny, sometimes involuntary glances towards Therese, a snap of longing and snap back to composure - so fast, you'd need to slow it down to see it fully - like the move of a Venus flytrap. Rooney's Therese is so entranced that the pair could be doing a mirror exercise. Her eyes move in sync with Blanchett's. There are scenes, like the one at their first lunch, when the formality of the surface is constantly broken by the subtext of romantic longing.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAROL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As waiter) And your mousse.
CATE BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Thank you.
ROONEY MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Waiter) Enjoy.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) I'm starved. Bon appetit. What do you do on Sundays?
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Nothing in particular, what do you do?
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Oh, nothing lately - maybe you'd like to come visit me sometime. You're welcome to. At least there's some pretty country around where I live. Would you like to come visit me this Sunday?
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Yes.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) What a strange girl you are.
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Why?
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Flung out of space.
EDELSTEIN: Haynes and playwright Phyllis Nagy have conceived "Carol" in the sumptuous Technicolor style of Haynes' "Far From Heaven," which was a sort of living museum exhibit to the '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk. He and cinematographer Ed Lachman bring out the soft textures in Sandy Powell's fabulous clothes, the play of light over fabric, the colors that heat up or cool down a scene. But the filmmakers rough things up. Haynes has cited such period photographers as Ruth Orkin and Vivian Maier. There's a hint that all this stylized elegance is on the verge of going to seed. I admire the movie. Though, sometimes the overbearing design, the clear sense that Haynes is deconstructing '50s cinema, kept me at arm's length. But one actor deepens the film, the down-to-earth Sarah Paulson as Carol's ex-lover, Abby. Their affair ended when Carol's husband caught them, and now Abby is a confidant for Carol - and even Therese when things take a turn for the worse. I can sum up my response to "Carol" with one moment. The movie is a flashback, and the first scene shows the lovers in a fancy restaurant staring sadly into each other's eyes. When Therese gets up to leave, Carol lets her hand linger on Therese's arm. And I laughed out loud as Rooney Mara looked down at the hand in a way that seemed slower than a kabuki actor - her eyes widening in anguish. It seemed so overdone. But when we returned to that scene and the moment was repeated, I didn't laugh. I'd been so immersed in the sensuous rhythms of the film that Carol's touch and Therese's reaction seemed completely appropriate. In Haynes' hands, deconstruction can be gloriously romantic.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Tomorrow on the Thanksgiving Day edition of FRESH AIR, we feature our interview with singer and songwriter Iris DeMent in which she performed a song from her latest album "The Trackless Woods" as well as songs inspired by the Pentecostal church her family attended. I hope you'll join us. And all of us at FRESH AIR wish you a happy Thanksgiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.