“Carol” is the mainstream lesbian movie we’ve been waiting a lifetime for

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There is a something magical about Carol. Perhaps that’s why 63years after Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt, on which Carol is based, the story still resonates so strongly. During a time when being gay was portrayed as deviant and hopeless, the story of Terese Belivet and Carol Aird broke the mold. Two women found each other and it is indeed hope that makes all the difference.

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I had the pleasure of seeing Carol on Friday evening at Newfest in NYC, and it was truly more than I even imagined it could be. Rarely does a film hit all the right notes, but Carol does just that. Every detail from the lighting to the costumes to the performances, sings. The film just buzzes with life, as if it might come bursting forth from the screen. Director Todd Haynes is a craftsman with a story, but one of his real gifts is making period pieces feel so contemporary. Carol always feels right on point, a human story with two beating hearts at the center.

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Those hearts of course belong to Terese (Rooney Mara in her finest role to date) and Carol (Cate Blanchett). When the two women meet across the counter at Frankenberg’s department store, the electricity crackles between them. Terese is taken by this sophisticated, stunning woman from the instant she lays eyes on her. Carol for her part is drawn to Terese, and initiates their first meeting. Mara and Blanchette could not be more perfectly cast in these roles. Mara, a very intelligent actress who hides a world of wonder behind her deceptively doe eyes, embodies Terese perfectly. Always observing and absorbing, it makes a lot of sense that the film changes Terese’s passion from set design to photography. With Carol, Terese finds her muse and her voice. Her photos show the passion she has for the other woman, even if Terese doesn’t offer up much in the way of words. When Carol makes Terese smile, Mara’s face lights up like a million Christmas trees. It’s a smile reserved for Carol alone and utterly enchanting. A lot has been said about Blanchett in this film, and don’t get me wrong, she’s incredible, but Mara deserves just as many accolades. This film is seen through Terese’s eyes, and our perception of the story changes as Terese grows and learns and comes into her own.

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Blanchett commands attention in this role, and the camera is in love with her visage, as is the audience. In a world awash in greys, Carol is often dressed in bold colors and stunning silhouettes. You could pick her out of a crowd of thousands, she commands that much attention. Blachett is able to show us a side of Carol that we aren’t always privy to in the book. She lets us see beyond Carol’s confident demeanor into the intensely vulnerable woman who trembles with longing at Terese’s touch. (Speaking of which, the love scenes are beautifully shot and a real masterclass in how a love scene can be both hot and emotionally charged.) The world is in love with Carol, and it’s hard not to fall for her yourself. A major change from the original book is that Carol’s ex Harge (Kyle Chandler) is still in love with her and trying to reconnect. This adds drama that serves the narrative of the film well, but is not really present in the novel.

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Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend and former lover is a complete delight. Tough yet sensitive, she turns this rather minor role into one that carries much gravitas. Carrie Brownstein has a blink and you miss it cameo near the end of the film too. Another supporting character worthy of a mention is the film’s soundtrack that truly transports you to 1952, and underscores so many of the film’s most enchanting moments.

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I’ve heard Carol referred to as the “Brokeback Mountain of lesbian films” and I think that does a disservice to this film. Brokeback is a stellar film in its own right, but the need to find a way to compare the films is unnecessary. Carol is a triumph all by itself. Brokeback is a tragedy, a heart-breaking account of the love that dared not speak its name. Carol is about the truth, and refusing to let society’s rules dictate what the heart needs and wants. In a time where homosexuality was considered something to be feared and corrected, Carol embraced the unknown. Where there is love, there is hope, and that is the intersection where Carol chooses to live.

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Carol opens on November 20th in select cities and nationwide later this fall.