The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



Carol is many things: a romance, an exploration of how same-sex relationships were viewed in an earlier time, and a story of female empowerment. More than anything, though, it's a film about the mystery of attraction. Sometimes in life, you're immediately drawn to another person. You know there's something there because you can feel it in your bones. Adapting Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, writer Phyllis Nagy and director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) create a beguiling story of two people from different worlds who come together powerfully.

Set in the early 1950s, the film stars Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, a young woman in a chaste, not entirely committed relationship with boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy). Therese gets a job at a department store, and one day waits on a woman named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Carol is slightly older, elegant, and sophisticated. There's something about her that commands attention. When Carol leaves her gloves at the store, Therese returns them, and a friendship blossoms. That friendship eventually morphs into an affair, much to the dismay of Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). Sarah Paulson plays Carol's longtime best friend, who was also a lover before Therese.

There have been a lot of other movies about same-sex relationships, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one that's as psychologically insightful as Carol. The subject is explored from a number of angles, some overt, some more subtle. There's the way Therese initially tries to squeeze herself into a heterosexual romance with Richard, even though she's not entirely feeling it. There's Harge's self-imposed sense of emasculation from not being able to accept that his wife isn't capable of conforming to what he wants her to be. (He's very worried about what her actions say about him.) There's Carol's lack of interest in what the world at large thinks of her, until she's unfairly backed into a corner and faced with potentially devastating consequences. And there's also the idea, repeated by Harge and his family, that Carol has a “condition” that can be fixed with therapy. These elements are all precisely observed in Carol, turning the film into a searing portrait of the things gay people had to go through in a less open, tolerant time.

The heart of the story, though, is the bond that develops between Carol and Therese. The latter can't believe that this mature, confident woman would be interested in her – a low level cashier with little worldliness. That proves both frightening and exhilarating. Therese's confidence grows in important ways as a result, even though a part of her clearly fears it will all come crashing down. And what does Carol see in her? Basic decency, certainly, but also an appealing innocence. She seems attracted to Therese's potential, to the idea that she's a flower just waiting to bloom. They are, in many respects, opposite sides of the same coin. Carol is what Therese wants to be; Therese is what Carol must once have been, but no longer is. The film explores the way these two women fill in each other's gaps, forming a sort of completeness by being together.

So much rests on the performances in a movie like this. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both do outstanding work, creating characters who continually earn our engagement, even – and especially – when they surprise us. Together, the actresses develop a romance that feels sincere and meaningful. Because of that authenticity, there is great drama in watching these two women face multiple obstacles as they explore the boundaries of their passion. You root for them to thrive, while also recognizing that the time they live in is inherently working against them.

Carol is masterfully acted, insightfully written, and sensitively directed. It's effective on a technical level, too. Edward Lachman's evocative cinematography creates a period ambiance that sucks you right in, while the production and costume design builds an effective contrast between the upper-crust world Carol inhabits and the working class environment Therese comes from. Haynes wants his audience to live inside this movie as they watch it, so he's hired a below-the-line crew capable of bringing even the smallest of details vividly to life.

As the plot winds to its conclusion, Carol and Therese come to great understandings about themselves, as well as about their attraction. Upon first glance, even they might have a hard time articulating the magic that's occurring between them, yet by the end, they have a much tighter grasp on it. There's an x-factor involved, a hard-to-define quality that is strongly felt. This is the magic of Carol: it understands that, as Woody Allen once put it (in a far less gracious situation), the heart wants what it wants. Trying to limit or label that mysterious quality is not as important as embracing it, even if the world around you fails to see the sense in it.

Movie romances don't come much more potent than this.

( out of four)

Carol is rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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