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NYFF review: That obscure object of desire in "Carol"

Desire is a subject well-suited to cinema -- the haunting stare, seductive voice and allure than draws in the object of affection, and us. As we see in Todd Haynes' new film, "Carol" (which debuts today at the 53rd New York Film Festival), it is also the hard-to-define quality that can set rigidly-ordered lives tumbling.

Rooney Mara in "Carol." Weinstein Company

In 1950s New York City, a department store shop girl, Therese (Rooney Mara), spies a woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), looking for Christmas presents for her young daughter. You can almost hear the thunderclap as Therese remains riveted on the elegant, married beauty, unsure what the attraction is.

Carol is estranged from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who desperately wants to halt their ongoing divorce proceedings and just return to the life they had. But his desire for normalcy doesn't fit with Carol's determination not to live a lie, following the revelation of her lesbian affair with an old school friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson). But Carol is also wary that any appearance of "immorality," such as an affair with a woman, might jeopardize maintaining custody of her daughter.

Therese has a boyfriend, Tommy (Cory Michael Smith), who dotes on her and presses her to join him on a trip to Europe. Therese is one who generally goes along with the flow, because she's never questioned what it means to do what others ask or expect of her. Indeed, while she might see herself as selfless, giving in to other's demands, one character calls her out as being selfish -- refraining from any decisions about what she wants, thus forcing others to direct her life for her.

Therese finds herself aching with thoughts of Carol, who suggests joining her on a road trip. She agrees, and their close-quarters travels enables an intimacy that marks a turning point in both their lives. Their trip also prompts Therese, perhaps for the first time, to make demands -- to be selfish.

The film is adapted from the novel "The Price of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith, who based her story loosely on her own affair with a married socialite who lost custody of her child over allegations of lesbianism. Haynes ("Safe," "Far From Heaven," HBO's "Mildred Pierce") directs with great sensitivity and a sharp eye for period detail, making the viewer feel as trapped in the suffocating strictures of 1950s social mores as the characters.

Mara (who won the Best Actress Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her performance) excels in her role of an aspiring photographer who lacks focus in her life, and who hopes that devotion to an older woman may fill that gap.

Blanchett's character -- as straying wife, doting mother and confidante -- reeks of stifled passion, stamped down by a judgmental society, but she is still resilient enough to lash out at threats to herself and her family. And in the face of accusations of immorality, Carol remains defiant, maintaining that hate and slander are ugly emotions and, she reasons, "We're not ugly people." Indeed, "Carol" shows that, then and now, dishonesty is the real ugliness.

DISCLAIMER: About thirty years ago I worked at the same company as "Carol"'s producers, Christine Vachon and Elizabeth Karlsen. Back then they demonstrated great creativity and intelligence in their work. They still do.

"Carol," a Weinstein Company release, opens November 20. Rated R. 118 mins.

To watch a trailer click on the video player below.

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