Carol, Phyllis Nagy’s fine adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, is an expertly crafted film by director Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven). The production and costume design, lighting and the filtered, unobtrusive cinematography evoke the feel of the early post-World War II years. In every aspect of the film, Haynes mines the social attitudes of hypocrisy and repression, uber-patriotism and formalities of social class. He even tokes the country’s modulation from a wartime to a consumer economy with the shiny retro settings. The storyline follows the forbidden and chic romance between a married socialite of good breeding and upper middle class cache and a shop girl whose sexual naivete is both innocent, charming and sensual.
When Highsmith penned the work in the 1950s it was considered risque. She used the pseudonym Claire Morgan because of the lesbian content. One publisher rejected it outright. Haynes’ film reflects the social currents of the time and keeps the sexuality that would be up front and center today, bubbling in subterranean streams just below the pellucid, Chanel-powdered skin of elegant, monied Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), and the fresh, blooming paleness of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara).
Blanchett and Mara pull out all stops under the guidance of Haynes as they quickly infuse a smoldering attraction during their benign initial meeting in a department store where Carol is buying toys and makes sure Therese has them delivered to her address. Therese, lonely, uninterested in her “boyfriend” Richard, risks herself and the comfortable “female” identity of the time by sending Carol a Christmas card. Carol, estranged emotionally and having difficulties in her marriage responds. From this initial, encounter of meaningful glances, curtained smiles and longing looks, Carol and Therese entertain a flirtation which grows into a supportive and close relationship until both fall in love.
The problem is that Carol, married to Harge, a conservative hypocrite of double standards (Kyle Chandler is an interesting throw-back to today), is going through a difficult separation. Harge, who is more concerned about appearances than happiness, does not want her to leave and he will stop at nothing to keep her, even threatening to gain sole custody of their daughter Rindy with accusations that Carol and Therese are lesbians.
Carol, who underestimates Harge’s pride in keeping his chattel by his side, never imagines that he would hire a private investigator to follow her and Therese on a road trip. After the investigator gathers evidence, Harge threatens her with exposing her lesbianism to keep Rindy. Carol tells Harge that they are “not those kinds of people,” in a scene that Blanchett plays to her consummate and understated best. Nevertheless, to keep the peace, Carol gently and lovingly overthrows her relationship with Therese to be with her child in a loveless and soft-gloved but emotionally brutal marriage.
How Carol and Therese confront their desires and forge their identity despite the angst and pain, Haynes showers in brief scenes. In these he reveals how the characters work through the severing of their bond which nurtured them and was the only truthful relationship they had. Haynes clarifies Highsmith’s themes beautifully carrying their threads throughout the film’s artistic design. He heightens them with his close attention to the details of the characters’ costumes and their almost stilted behaviors. These especially reflect the repressive and false cultural mores which encourage that Therese and especially Carol suppress their soul misery as long as they maintain an appearance of probity. When Carol and Therese are in public, their behaviors are muted. In private they behave more freely within the structure of who they would like to be and can create themselves to be. The acting is subtle, never enforced and both Mara and Blanchett are exceptional in revealing the inner lives of Carol and Therese.
Carol is artistically beautiful. Carter Burwell’s score is the poignant ribbon of emotional strength, sadness and truthfulness that echoes what can happen when individuals find love and then are confronted with its loss. Haynes’ workmanship and his enlightened casting of Mara and Blanchett who make the roles their own, are the reasons why the film has received nominations and awards. Surely, more will follow after it opens on November 20.