I have admitted before that I’m a romantic. I’ve teared up at films often, but usually because of the situation touching something in my own mind or past. Carol is the first time I can remember, in a very long time, quietly weeping due to the actor truly making me feel their pain and not manipulating me into it. In this case, Cate Blanchett (Cinderella). She delivers one of the most powerful and complex performances of her career in this film.

But Blanchett isn’t the only performance of note. Rooney Mara, who only proves my point about her abused ability in Pan, likewise puts to screen a magnetic and compelling turn. The tension between the two is practically a physical element in the film from the first moment they meet. It is, for all intents, a third lead in the story. The cinematography accentuates the sensation with visual framing, reflections, metaphors, and dim, secretive lighting (which had its drawbacks, but I’ll come back to that).

Supporting the two are Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave) and Kyle Chandler (Bloodline). Either could have devolved into trite representations of wronged lovers or spurned spouses. Instead, each is wonderfully nuanced. They help keep the world real rather than representational. Jack Lacy (Obvious Child) also manages a nice balancing act of a man truly in love with the wrong person. John Magaro (The Big Short) has a fun part to play that provides a path for Mara’s character, but he is likely the least believable role, as written, in the piece. No fault of his, it just isn’t that rich a character.

You’ve probably heard murmurings of this film, but whatever you’ve heard, it can’t do it justice. It is a quiet film, done well and told well by director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce) and adapted beautifully by relative newcomer Nagy. It is no secret that this is a tale of “forbidden love” in 1950’s NYC, which apparently looked then as Cincinnati does now (which is where it was filmed). But I wasn’t sure if I should expect something more like Thelma and Louise or Blanchett’s earlier film, Notes on a Scandal. As it turns out it is neither of these, but something more unique and wonderful and horrible and, well, just see it.

I hinted that the cinematography had some issues, so let me get that out of the way now. While providing a sense of furtiveness and of looking back through time, the low light did not transmit well to the theater I saw  the film. The digital noise was actually giving me a headache at points. I understood the choices, however. And the absolutely on-point use of hand-held at moments only increased my opinion of Lachman’s (Mildred PierceHowl) work here. However, the technology didn’t do him justice. I am hopeful the blu-ray transfer will be given more care to avoid the issue. I have to wonder how much the shift to digital streaming in theaters will affect film choices down the line? I am seeing more and more digital noise on the screen when I go. Much like what make-up artists went through when HD became the standard on television, I imagine cinematographers will have to revisit their approach now as well.

This film is, overall, one of the best of the last year without question. It is firing on all points and is going to continue to receive multiple nominations and, I suspect, wins in many cases. This is the kind of film you hope you’ll see when you go out, a near-perfect piece of entertainment full of emotion and catharsis. It isn’t a grab you by the throat film, but it seeps into you over the course of the story and will leave you breathless.

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