Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacey
The psychological thrillers of American novelist Patricia Highsmith have for a long time proven a rich source for film adaptations (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley’s Game). However her second novel, The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story set in the 1950s which she published under a pseudonym, had not been touched. It is difficult to imagine a filmmaker better suited to tackling this material than Todd Haynes. Over the course of his 25 year career Haynes has a tremendous track record of building films around complex female protagonists and exploring issues of queer identity, while being one of the very few directors to work in the classic melodrama genre. All of which contribute to the faithful adaptation of Highsmith’s work in Carol.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a quiet, shy young woman with an interest in photography who works in the toy section of a Manhattan department store. In the days leading up to Christmas, Therese meets an elegant society woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) who is shopping for a Christmas gift for her daughter. A slightly older woman than Therese, Carol is instantly fascinating to her. Carol leaves behind her gloves, possibly on purpose, prompting a second encounter between the two, where it becomes apparent that she is equally intrigued by this young woman. As the two grow closer, they decide to embark on a road trip to Chicago together. However, both women have men in their lives. For Therese, that man is Richard (Jake Lacey), an eager young fellow who is keen to marry her, despite her reluctance. Carol’s situation is significantly more complicated. She is locked in a custody battle with her ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who is seeking sole custody of their daughter on the grounds of Carol’s questionably morals (read: sexual preference). Confused and desperate rather than vindictive, Harge is, like so many others, madly in love with Carol but cannot truly understand her. So Carol is left to choose between her child and the person she wants to be with, between polite society’s rules and her own desires.
To say that Carol is a story of love at first sight is too simplistic a description of this wonderfully nuanced film. The instant attraction between them at the department store which grows in their subsequent meetings comes much more from a sense of fascination, intrigue or curiosity than from starry-eyed love. While Carol has clearly experienced these feeling before, for Therese it is something new and foreign. While their relationship moves quite quickly, the film takes a more leisurely pace. Haynes allows for the bond between them to grow and develop without being in any hurry to label it, to declare them lovers. While it is scandalous within the world of the story, it is not presented that way to us. There is not a hint of sensationalism in the way Haynes presents this romance. Even the eventual physical consummation is underplayed but so affecting. Some of the credit for this should go to Haynes’ long-time collaborator, director of photography Ed Lachman, who finds a way to shoot these two women which captures the desire they have for each other whilst completely avoiding the objectification of the female form that so often defines the male gaze of cinema.
Cate Blanchett has a commanding presence in the titular role and owns the film when she is on screen. There is something so engaging about her that we instantly understand how she might fascinate this young woman. There is a power imbalance between the two. There is something almost predatory about Carol in her early meetings with Therese. She is more assured, more confident, more experienced. She knows what she wants in a way that Therese, for whom all these feelings and experiences are new and undefined, does not. But there are layers to her performance, as Blanchett manages to capture the assuredness and confidence of Carol’s outward presentation as well as the fragility that lies beneath it.
It was a cheeky case of category fraud which saw Rooney Mara nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards as she is, at the very least, the co-lead of the film. While we get some moments of focus on Carol’s family life, largely the film comes from Therese’s point of view and follows her emotional journey. Mara’s sensitive portrayal captures the confusion of this girl, scared and excited by every new feeling, and her growth and development as a woman.
Carol is not Haynes’ first foray into the melodrama genre, having previously remade the classic noir melodrama Mildred Pierce as a miniseries for HBO and directed Far from Heaven, a reimagining of Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows. Carol functions as an effective companion piece to the latter, which despite its more heightened colour palette and ironic tone, shares Carol’s focus on characters leading a sexual double life in the confining environment of middle class 1950s America, a world brought to life here by Judy Becker’s meticulous production design and Sandy Powell’s sensuous costumes.
Beyond the specifics of its exploration of sexuality, Carol is more broadly a film about the tension between our personal desires and the conventions and expectations of society. And beyond its exploration of the world and attitudes of the 1950s, the reception of Carol tells us a little bit about the world and attitudes of today. It has been a decade since the release of Brokeback Mountain, an equally brilliant film which also featured well known Hollywood stars in a homosexual relationship. But where, despite its critical acclaim, the release of Ang Lee’s film was plagued by awkward smirking and giggling, todays audiences appear more able to move beyond the seeming novelty of a same sex relationship and accept this film for what it is: a beautifully measured and nuanced, but ultimately classical romance.
Review by Duncan McLean
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