Melancholy Cast in Steel: Cate Blanchett in Carol

The opening shot of Todd Haynes’ Carol rises up on an ornately patterned fence. Each exquisitely composed scene that follows includes things that divide us: walls, doors, panes of glass. There’s always something visually in the way to separate Therese from Carol, the woman she’s fallen in love with at first sight. The movie is set in 1950s New York so the obvious comparisons will reference Haynes’ 2002 film with Julianne Moore Far From Heaven.

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But that was an autumnal story, warmed up by Julianne Moore and the shimmering palette of gold, green and rust. Carol is a wintry melodrama, with actresses performing a different kind of craft. Rooney Mara as Therese is chilly and reticent, her wardrobe constricts her body in gray, pearl and black. Casting her was clever: we’re used to seeing her as decisive and self-aware. Here, her character is unformed and in process. Her scene partner is Cate Blanchett as Carol, and she dominates every scene with a melancholy that’s cast in steel. We know what the wiser, experienced Carol is thinking because Blanchett becomes her. We don’t know what the unworldly, closeted Therese is thinking because Mara becomes her. This is a master class in acting, an icy romance heating up on a slow burn. Haynes’ meticulous direction reminds us what it feels like to resist someone, to long for them, and then, finally, to allow yourself the ecstasy of a swoon.

Carol opens Thursday, Dec. 11, at the Embarcadero Cinema.

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