Year: 2016
Production Co: Number 9 Films
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Phyllis Nagy/Patricia Highsmith
Cast: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson

One of the oft-quoted refrains in movies about gay couples that you hear from the directors (and in the whole marketing narrative) is that it's just a love story, not a gay love story. The director is routinely not making a political statement, he or she is just telling a story about the emotional ruination of falling in a kind of love society doesn't condone.

When it comes to most films (see Brokeback Mountain), it's a hard assertion to believe. Nothing has so much built-in socio-political heft or grabs for as many awards as stories that reflect outdated attitudes towards homosexuality. It's also the case with Todd Haynes beautiful period love story Carol, though he comes as close as any director has about the nature of gay love not being the point of the story.

Rooney Mara is Therese, a young New Yorker suffering the straight-backed indignities of working in a department store in the 1950s when she spies well to do customer Carol (Cate Blanchett) across the room.

Therese is barely equipped to deal with the feelings the stately blonde housewife gives her – thanks to both her youth and inexperience and a lack of context from the world she lives in.

But when Carol buys an expensive train set for her daughter for Christmas, she leaves her fur-lined gloves behind (whether on purpose or not, we never know). Therese dutifully mails them back to Carol and the two strike up a tentative but warm friendship. Both of them are aware of how implicitly strange it is for them to keep meeting – Therese has no real reason to want to spend time with Carol apart from the way the older woman's presence makes her feel.

Things aren't so simple for the older woman. She's trying to extricate herself from her estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and maintain her relationship with their small daughter, but Carol knows she's gay and her past relationships now threaten access to her child if the lawyers (and Harge himself) impose the moral absolutism of the day.

Throwing caution to the wind, Carol takes Therese on a cross-country trip and the pair have the chance to properly fall in love (the equivalent of Ennis and Jack's heady forest cavorting in Brokeback Mountain).

But the real world is never very far behind and Haynes has never been interested in fairy tales, so you hardly dare hope Therese or Carol will find their happy endings.

As usual, Blanchett makes it all look absolutely effortless, but Mara's just as good. It's no real wonder the Academy ignored both at the 2016 Oscars, because both performances are quiet and dignified, even the anguish when love dies conveyed with barely more than a toss of hair or a long stare from Mara's huge, rabbit-in-headlights eyes.

Like the period itself – which is rendered beautifully but has a similar sense of aesthetic understatement – the emotion the characters show is barely allowed to bubble to the surface because of the social mores of the time. It's the opposite of the emotional oversupply most award-grabbing movies display, and Blanchett and Mara make it real rather than flashy.

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