'Carol' is carefully appointed outside, chilly inside

'Carol' stars Rooney Mara as a shopgirl who becomes romantically involved with wife and mother Carol (Cate Blanchett).

Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company/AP
Rooney Mara, as Therese Belivet, and Cate Blanchett, as Carol Aird, in a scene from the film, 'Carol.'

Todd Haynes’s “Carol,” based on the 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith (written under a pseudonym and titled “The Price of Salt”), is a sort of companion piece to his “Far From Heaven,” which was also about sexual repression in postwar America. Like that movie, I think “Carol” is a repressed movie about repression, carefully appointed on the outside, chilly inside.

Cate Blanchett plays a well-heeled wife and mother who carries out a sort of secret life as a lesbian. Her Carol falls for Therese, played by Rooney Mara, a pretty shopgirl with whom she shares martini lunches and eventually a car trip westward, where their furtive affections finally become passionate before Carol’s husband tracks them down and lawyers up for sole custody of his and Carol's daughter.

This is not one of Highsmith’s creepy Ripleyesque narratives. On the contrary, it’s one of the few lesbian-themed texts from that era that ends on an upbeat, as does the movie. The problem is that there is very little chemistry between the actresses, and Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy are far too studied in their depiction of passion. The most impressive performance in the movie is given by Blanchett’s elaborately coiffed, cast-iron hairdo. Grade: C+ (Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.)

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