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CAROL

Producer: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley and Christine Vachon
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Phyllis Nagy
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, John Mafaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Amy Warner, Kimberly Heim, Sadie Heim and Trent Rowland
Studio: The Weinstein Company

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After fashioning one 1950s-set masterpiece with “Far from Heaven,” Todd Haynes returns to the decade and scores another with this exquisite adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical “The Price of Salt,” a lesbian novel (whose publication in 1952 under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan pointed up the temper of the era) which broke the mold at the time because of its relatively happy—or at least not tragic—ending.

As adapted with subtlety and intelligence by Phyllis Nagy, “Carol” is actually quite a simple story of the attraction between two very different women at a moment in American history when such relationships could have devastating consequences. In 1950 Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), an aspiring photographer, is working as a clerk in the toy department of a Manhattan department store during the Christmas rush. The timid young lady has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), a pleasant fellow who’s pestering her to go to Europe with him while he’s studying there and wants to marry her, but Therese is clearly uncomfortable with such a possibility. Nor does an encounter with another nice guy, Dannie (John Magaro), a newspaperman who encourages her photographic ambitions, seem to be going much beyond friendship.

What jars Therese to emotional life is a chance meeting with Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is an elegant, well-to-do woman who stops by her aisle in the store to buy a present for her daughter Rindy (Kennedy and Sadie Heim). A connection between the two seems immediate, though there’s no overt sign of anything beyond a purely businesslike conversation about dolls and toy railroads. When Carol departs, however, she leaves behind her gloves on the counter, prompting Therese to get in touch with her to return them. A thank-you lunch follows, after which Carol invites Therese to visit her in her New Jersey home, and their friendship quickly blooms.

That’s a signal to Carol’s estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who’s separated from her as a result of her long-time relationship with Abby (Sarah Paulson) and is roughly demanding that she return to a wifely role. When she declines to accompany him and Rindy to his parents for the holidays, he storms off in a drunken huff. Carol, in return, suggests that Therese join her on a road trip to the Midwest, during which they finally give in to their desire for one another. Doing so proves, however, to have dire consequences insofar as Carol’s ability to have any contact with her daughter is concerned. She’s forced to make a choice between Rindy and Therese, a decision that threatens to keep the women apart for good.

As with “Far From Heaven,” Haynes treats a Truman (and early Eisenhower)-era tale of a love that’s deemed unacceptable by an uncomprehending society with supreme sensitivity and poise. Within a perfectly recreated period ambience fashioned by production designer Judy Becker, art director Jesse Rosenthal, set decorator Heather Loeffler and costume designer Sandy Powell, he, cinematographer Ed Lachman and editor Affonso Goncalves use a mixture of intense close-ups, cannily chosen distant shots, shadows, muted yet creamy colors and sensuously deliberate pacing to suggest the passion that’s churning beneath apparently placid surfaces. Carter Burwell’s moody score similarly exudes the feeling of deep longing stymied by supposed propriety.

Without superb acting, however, all the craftsmanship behind the camera would count for little. The supporting cast is excellent, with Chandler and Paulson the standouts: he captures the vanity-based anger of a man incapable of comprehending his wife’s needs, and she the self-sacrifice that leads Abby to assist Carol and Therese when they need her even though her the former has moved on. But the film belongs to Blanchett and Mara. In a role that makes very different demands from the one for which she won the Oscar in “Blue Jasmine,” Blanchett is generally the embodiment of understated refinement. But she can also convey Carol’s uncontrolled fury when she feels betrayed, and her devastation over the thought of losing her child, and her stern determination when she takes a final stand against the irrational prejudice her husband represents. Mara has a less demonstrative, but perhaps more difficult part to play, evolving slowly from mousiness to the excitement of discovery and finally to a sense of self-confidence that has eliminated her earlier dependence. It’s the film’s skill in portraying the two women’s emotional arcs with such precision that makes its final moment so radiant, achieving an effect not unlike the one Hitchcock managed in the first vision Scottie has of Madeleine in “Vertigo.”

“Carol” is a small film, but it’s like a flawless gem with endless facets to explore and appreciate. There may be some complaints from Highsmith devotees that it softens the book in some respects, but the changes aren’t detrimental to its essence, which shows both how much things have changed since 1952 in terms of the law and, paradoxically, how much they might not have in the wider society.

WINTER SLEEP (KIS UYKUSU)

Producer:  Zeynep Ozbatur Atakan
Director:  Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Writer: Ebru Ceylan and Nuri Bilge Ceylan 
Stars:  Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag, Ayberk Pekcan, Serhat Kilic, Nejat Isler, Tamer Levent, Nadir Saribacak, Ali Nuroglu and Emirhan Doruktutan
Studio: Adopt Films 

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Some will undoubtedly be of the opinion that a 196-minute film without car chases, explosions, superheroes, dinosaurs or oversized robots that turn into cars must be boring, but “Winter Sleep” proves them wrong. To be sure, it demands patience and attentiveness, but like a play by Chekhov—its obvious inspiration—the film reveals a great deal about the reality of the human condition through its probing characterizations and pungent dialogue. (Comparisons with the domestic dramas of Edward Albee wouldn’t be out of place, either.)

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“Once Upon A Time in Anatolia”) and written with his wife Ebru, the film is basically a character study that’s also the story of a marriage in trouble. The central character is Aydin (Haluk Bilginer, who from some perspectives looks very much like Ian Holm). He owns a hotel in a remote area of the mountains of Cappadocia, literally carved out of the rock, where he lives with his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his divorced sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin is an ex-actor, collecting material for a prospective book on Turkish theatre, and a sort of self-styled arbiter of taste and propriety, penning a regular column for the local newspaper in which he comments scornfully on what he considers lapses of decorum among local residents.

By the standards of the locality Aydin is also a wealthy man, with rental properties in the area. The film opens with him in that role, when Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), a young boy, angrily aims a rock at the passenger window of the rover in which Aydin is being driven by his factotum Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Hidayet catches Ilyas and they take him home, where his gruff father Ismail (Nejat Isler) confronts them, Hidayet taking the lead while Aydin tarries some distance from the confrontation. The family’s hostility results from the fact that they’d failed to pay their rent and so been visited by a debt collector—to Ismail, a humiliation. The next day, however, Ismail’s younger brother, the obsequious imam Hamdi (Serhat Kilic) arrives at the hotel with Ilyas in tow to offer proper apologies and beg forgiveness. Aydin only reluctantly agrees to meet with them at all, not because he’s especially angry but because he’s uncomfortable hobnobbing with such people and following the rituals of lordship. He’d prefer keeping a condescending distance and letting intermediaries take care of such matters for him, like the distant lord he is.

At home Aydin faces some trouble from his sister, who bears him some ill-will because, it seems, he had a hand in persuading—perhaps compelling—to leave her husband. They have long conversations about Aydin’s work in his study, which slowly degenerate into mutual insults. His relationship with Nihal is no less tense, especially when he comes upon a meeting of a committee she’s created to raise funds to improve the local schools, where the appearance of the young teacher Levent (Nadir Saribacak) especially irks him. When her husband tries to make a donation—anonymously, he notes—Nihal refuses; and when he tries to commandeer her oversight of the philanthropic effort, supposedly to insure it will be done properly and his reputation won’t be besmirched, she attacks him verbally with as much venom as her sister-in-law had.

The Ceylans offer both an insightful suggestion and a degree of deliberate misdirection when they call Aydin’s hotel the Othello. The theme of jealousy is certainly present, but anyone expecting the film to take the same turn as Shakespeare’s play will be disappointed. The reference is merely to the poison that words can spread—not only Necla and Nihal’s sharp observations about Aydin, but Aydin’s editorial judgments about everyone around him, whether expressed in print, or in conversation, or simply in attitude. By the end of the film—when he’s engaged in a night of drunken discourse with teacher Levent and widowed farmer Suavi (Tamer Levent)—his veneer of imperturbable gentility has been swept aside, and the viewer has come to see him as the arrogant, cynical man he is, dispensing oracular pronouncements on all around him while maintaining an attitude of aloof, privileged disdain. The only people he appears to treat with a degree of respect are the few guests who come to the hotel during the snowy off season—a Japanese couple, a wanderer going nowhere on particular on his motorcycle. Yet before long they all flee his presence.

Still, the air of noblesse oblige is not, as the final scenes of “Winter Sleep” remind us, limited to Aydin, however false his view of himself might be. Nihal attempts some sort of personal redemption in a visit to Ismail and Hamdi, only to find that not everyone is ready to respond to her charitable impulses. The film ends not with the reconciliation one might hope for, but with the recognition that people are who they are, with clashing ideals and perspectives that make them all as uncontrollable as the wild horse Aydin pays a local man to catch for him.

While Aydin might not be able to bend everyone around him to his will, Bilginer dominates the film with a commanding performance filled with nuance and control. Still, he doesn’t entirely eclipse Sozen’s icily passionate precision as a young woman who understands the compromises she’s made in marrying not just an older man but one like him, or Akbag’s embodiment of Necla’s simmering resentment, or Kilic’s nervous subservience as the imam desperately searching for a way to restore a degree of balance to his family’s life. Meanwhile Pekcan provides contrast as the canny, earthier Hidayet.

The acting is central to the success of a piece such as this, but so are the ambience, which Gokhan Tiryaki’s cinematography captures not only in the extraordinary outdoor scenes but in the subtle interior ones as well, and the rhythm, which Ceylan, acting as editor along with Bora Goksingol, keeps unhurried but intense. The strains of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D. 959, the only music used throughout the film, add a note of ineffable longing to this brilliant but demanding portrait of people trapped by their cultural and emotional baggage in a landscape that emphasizes by its enormity how small they all actually are, whatever their station.