Patricia Highsmith is a name familiar to many movie buffs. Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January are just a few of the films based on her writing. Of course, these fall into the mystery-thriller genre, but Highsmith’s writing was broader than that. In Carol, director Todd Haynes brings us a compelling tale of forbidden love based on Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (later re-titled as simply Carol). That work – Highsmith’s second novel after Strangers on a Train – was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan; principally because its lesbian themes were seen as a little too hot for an up-and-coming writer to have to deal with in the early 1950s. It was based, at least in part, on personal experiences.
Haynes is no stranger to stories of forbidden love, having directed the acclaimed Far from Heaven (2002) about the relationship between an Anglo woman and an African-American man, also set in the 1950s. Haynes’ delicate touch and eye for detail are perfectly suited for this kind of material.
The film opens near Christmas in 1952. Rather shy shop assistant Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is working in the toy department of a New York City department store when she encounters Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Carol is searching for the year’s “hot” doll for her daughter Rindy. Therese advises they’re all sold out, and suggests instead a train set. Carol agrees, and provides her home address and payment details. However, she leaves her gloves behind; and Therese mails them back to her. In return for this small kindness, Carol invites Therese to lunch at a classy restaurant. They talk and find each other fascinating in their own way. Eventually, Carol invites Therese for Christmas dinner; which she accepts. While Therese is at Carol’s plush New Jersey home, her estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) shows up. He’s pushing for custody of Rindy and accuses Carol of having renewed an affair with Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson), an old friend and their daughter’s godmother. He has an ultimatum – come with him for the holidays with his family in Florida or he will be taking steps to gain full custody of Rindy. For Therese, things are also complicated. Her rather clueless boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) is pressuring her to commit to him; but she feels a kinship with Dannie (John Magaro), who has managed to swing her a photography job (of sorts) at the New York Times. However, neither of these men can deliver what she feels from Carol.
While the plot is fairly routine in a way, Haynes’ deft direction and playwright Phyllis Nagy’s dense screenplay elevate it into something special. In 2016, the mere fact of a relationship between two women is hardly going to provide any shock or surprise. Instead, the film’s centre is provided by the finely woven portrait of a relationship (actually, relationships) with all the attendant joy and pain. The screenplay also offers a neat twist and an ending that seems perfectly in tune with the balance of the film.
Also notable is the film’s re-creation of the 1950s. DOP Edward Lachman (Mildred Pierce) and production designer Judy Becker (Hitchcock) have pulled together a look and feel that seems just right. Apparently the design was heavily influenced by the photographs of Vivian Meier and Saul Leiter. Photography also plays a significant part in the narrative.
For all its attention to detail however, Carol relies heavily on its performances; and they’re spectacular. Cate Blanchett is surely in line for another Oscar for her performance as the titular character. There are some parallels between Carol Aird and Jasmine in Blue Jasmine, for which Blanchett won an Oscar in 2014. Even though Carol is rather more outwardly assured than Jasmine, she suffers similar internal struggles, which Blanchett masterfully conveys on screen. She is however equally matched by Rooney Mara, who captures Therese’s naivete and bewilderment, as well as her determination to make something of herself. It’s a kind of “yin” performance to complement Blanchett’s “yang”. As the rather brutish Harge, Kyle Chandler has something of a thankless task, but pulls it off with a sense of barely subdued rage.
Carol is one of the most finely textured and subtly observed films you’re likely to see this year. While it will barely make a dent in comparison to the box office of the recent Star Wars movie, it’s the kind of film that offers rewards beyond shallow spectacle and instant gratification.
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler
Release Date: 14 January 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television