Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in CarolCAROL

Carol is director Todd Haynes’ period drama about a passionate lesbian affair, and it’s a good thing the movie won’t be turning into any kind of mainstream hit, because otherwise it could have a truly dangerous effect. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, gazing at each other with urgent need, make the unhealthy and widely frowned-upon activity look so chic, sexy, and seductive that if the film became too popular, we might easily be seeing an entire generation of young women eager to be smokers.

Before any of the co-stars’ cigarettes are lit, however, the women’s mutual attraction most certainly is, and this glorious adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel hooks us as quickly as Blanchett’s Carol Aird and Mara’s Therese Belivet hook one another. Carol is a well-to-do housewife with a young daughter she cherishes and a husband (Kyle Chandler’s Harge) from whom she’s currently separated. Therese is a single 20-something with an occasional boyfriend (Jake Lacy’s Richard) and a job at a busy department store. (As Carol is mostly set in 1952 New York, just like recent Brooklyn, I found myself hopelessly wishing that Mara’s Therese and Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis would accidentally meet – maybe at some networking event for romance-minded salesgirls.) One day, while shopping for her daughter’s Christmas present, Carol locks eyes with Therese, who’s standing behind the counter of the toy department wearing a floppy Santa hat. Carol smiles. Therese smiles back. And you half-expect the store’s many customers to immediately begin fanning themselves, asking, “Did it just get really hot in here?”

Modern movies have had a notoriously tough time demonstrating this kind of heat. More often than not, attempts at creating sizzling sexual energy have led to the affected silliness of Fifty Shades of Grey or Jennifer Lopez’s “erotic” thriller The Boy Next Door – all forced smolder and sweaty limbs and howler dialogue. But Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy get that what’s really intoxicating about the first flush of sexual attraction is its teasing quality: the way one hand casually (accidentally?) brushes against another; the glint of recognition when an offhanded observation proves laden with insinuation. From their first flirtation at the department store, with Therese easily convincing Carol to buy her daughter a train set instead of the doll she really wanted, Carol’s central figures appear to be communicating on a shared wavelength all their own. But when that encounter leads to a lunch date, and then to an afternoon at Carol’s suburban mansion, the stars’ chemistry – divinely captured by cinematographer Edward Lachman – begins to put all of this century’s heterosexual screen romances to shame.

Elegant and accomplished through Nagy’s script is, Carol’s and Therese’s passion for one another is almost never verbalized, and certainly never in public, as befits a secret same-sex romance in 1952. Instead, it’s discreetly apparent in tiny gestures – Carol touching Therese’s shoulder as she plays a melancholy tune on the piano, Carol’s fingers reflexively trembling before answering Therese’s phone call – and haunting, faraway looks. (Lachman performs miracles with reflective surfaces here, and Rooney Mara has never before looked as bewitching as she does viewed through the back window of a taxi, the passing streetlamps briefly illuminating Therese’s romantic ardor every few seconds.) With its loaded silences and nearly palpable yearning, Haynes’ work here is a master class in tone. It’s a master class in just about everything, really.

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in CarolAlthough Carol (currently playing at Iowa City’s Marcus Sycamore Cinema) is principally a romance, elements of film noir keep poking through, and the director builds extraordinary suspense out of the fundamental danger behind the women’s burgeoning relationship – particularly in regard to Carol, whose husband may be having her followed, and who could easily lose custody of her daughter if her affair was made public. (When I saw the movie, the biggest gasp in the theater came from Therese’s early discovery of Carol’s gun – or is it Chekhov’s gun? – stashed in her suitcase.) But the tension in these narrative developments doesn’t feel separated from the movie’s romantic tension. Nagy’s narrative is all of a piece, just as the film’s stunning period design feels exactly in tune with Carter Burwell’s lushly orchestrated score and the background extras who, you’d swear, walked onto the set directly from the confines of a 1952 time capsule.

The performances, meanwhile, couldn’t be bettered. Chandler finally has a film role that showcases the enormous talent he’s displayed on TV, and his Harge is both threatening and poignant; when he walks in on Therese at his home and asks the girl, “How do you know my wife?”, all of the sadness and disappointment of the man’s failed marriage can be heard in the plaintive way Chandler places the accent on “how.” Lacy has been a welcome presence ever since his days as Pete “Plop” Miller on The Office, and he’s an adorable chump here, never quite as dim as Therese – or we – think he is. The ever-marvelous Sarah Paulson plays Carol’s best friend and former lover Abby, and is given one especially powerful scene in which she angrily confronts Harge on the front steps of her home. (At one point, Abby drops an F-bomb on him, and the effect is the same as when Dennis Quaid shouted it in Haynes’ 1950s drama Far from Heaven you wince both at the word itself and the reminder that it still has the power to shock.)

Mara appears so invested in Therese’s subtle yet roiling emotions that they practically bleed from her, and even if she still exudes that odd aura of spooked perplexity that she has on-screen since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it proves perfectly fitting given that Carol says to Therese, “What a strange girl you are – flung out of space!” That’s a line, and a beauty of one, that maybe only Cate Blanchett could pull off these days. But then again, Blanchett pulls off one magical piece of acting after another, from the perfectly executed gesture of Carol’s repeated, wealthy-socialite head turn (it’s a movement that oozes luxury and feigned confidence) to her resigned anguish at a custody hearing, which ranks with the greatest individual scenes on the star’s résumé, if you can imagine. While I’ve loved his output for years, from 1991’s Poison to 2011’s Mildred Pierce, my favorite Todd Haynes film prior to Carol was 2002’s Far from Heaven. Like that heartbreaker, this one actually isn’t far at all.


Brett Granstaff in The Masked SaintTHE MASKED SAINT

For days now, the audiobook of David Sedaris’ memoir When You Are Engulfed in Flames has been playing in my car’s CD player. The lengthiest of Sedaris’ comic vignettes is titled “The Smoking Section,” and while driving home from the movies on Friday, I came to the author’s discussion of his first exposure to Kabuki theatre. Describing the surface ridiculousness of the production’s climax, Sedaris reflected, “You had to laugh. But at the same time, you couldn’t help but be moved. And that, I think, is pretty much the essence of a good show.” I myself laughed upon hearing that portion of the CD, because the author’s summary proved eerily similar to how I was feeling about the faith-based drama I had just seen. It’s hard not to laugh at The Masked Saint, which concerns a small-town pastor who’s also a professional-wrestling champ and amateur crime-fighter. (I am not joking; the story is based on the life of real-world pastor Chris Whaley.) I’ll admit, though, and with no end of embarrassment, that I smiled a lot, and not derisively, and even got a little misty-eyed at the finale. Director Warren P. Sonoda’s movie may be mostly terrible, yet he puts on a good show.

Still, to be clear: It’s mostly terrible. I don’t know if I rolled my eyes the hardest at the film’s “comically” ghastly church choir or the tiresome and endless slow-motion in the wrestling scenes – or maybe at the sheer senselessness, as when our tights-wearing pastor Chris (co-writer Brett Granstaff) chided his congregation for shunning a visiting hooker when no one there seemed all that bothered by her presence. And I may have let out a few inappropriate chuckles at the sweetly inept straining-for-seriousness of the dialogue, as when the aforementioned prostitute thanked our hero for saving her life with “You’re a saint!”, and he countered with a growly, inevitable “No, miss. I’m just a man.” (The movie frequently resembles Netflix's Marvel’s Daredevil as acted by the Newsboys.) But there’s also something weirdly charming about this comic-book movie for the devout. We’re treated to some nice offhanded comedy amidst the unintentional comedy, and even though the portrayals are hardly Oscar-caliber, you can sense everyone really trying their best, and their positive energy proves totally infectious. (For a legitimate performance, we also have Diahann Carroll, and the 80-year-old is just as beautiful and grounded as ever.) By the time nearly the entire cast gathered for The Masked Saint’s emotional climax with pastor Chris entering the ring to fight a hulking brute nicknamed (but of course) The Reaper, I was completely won over. To be honest, I was a little won over earlier, too, when the recently deceased “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, in an enjoyable adieu, showed up to play a shady promoter who tells the pastor, “There hasn’t been a fair fight in wrestling since the ’70s.” I guess he’d know, huh?

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