dir. Todd Haynes
written by: Phyllis Nagy
starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson
4 out of 4 stars
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. Best known these days as the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Highsmith published this semi-autobiographical work without her suspense name disappointing mystery readers looking for a bit more murder in their story. The fact that this book, now renamed Carol with movie cover and all, is found in the Mystery section of Barnes & Noble demonstrates the name association certainly can confuse genre, along with categorization; more on that later.
Mostly fallen out of even LGBT culture, the novel follows the growing relationship of a young artist and seasonal shop girl, 19-years-old Therese Belivet and an older society woman Carol Aird, the namesake of the Todd Haynes movie. Highly taboo for the time, the growing affair moves slowly and cautiously, Therese never having engaged in same sex relations and Carol barely ahead of her. Each must struggle with preexisting, dissatisfying relationships at odds with the life they are beginning to discover. No need for further information, but the novel idea in this work is that no one dies, no one is imprisoned, and there is a semblance of a future for the couple. Read Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet or watch the fantastic documentary to see how far LGBT cinema has come.
The book and movie differ. Not a great deal of non-literature specific inner monologue from Therese is left out of the movie; the plot takes approximately the same course. Carol’s involvement grows notably. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy delves into usually quiet interactions between the lovers surrounded by the more hectic external creatures surrounding their desirably singular duo. Handsome dialogue and some key fierce lines–just listen for them, you’ll know the ones–spark an understated love affair that glides in smoothly and then passionately, all at once. Like fog barreling over a mountain’s crest, the movie captures a rare beauty and engulfs the viewer in a natural slide into very intense feelings.
Wrapped in exceptional craft, the techs surrounding the film links spectacular scene after spectacular scene, never overwhelming the audience but always breathtaking in its skill. The production design in unobtrusive and period perfection, with well scouted locations and furniture placement entirely on point. Costumer Designer Sandy Powell, prepared to compete against herself here and with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella at the Oscars, outdoes herself on the hats alone. Everything Blanchett wears is divine, and Mara should never remove a hat unless she is going to simply replace it with another, even grander hat. Carter Burwell composed a sweeping score, highly reminiscent of Philip Glass’s score in The Hours, but how is that possibly a bad thing? He intones such beauty, a viewer is swept back into the movie with the soaring melodies. Splice in some fantastic 1950’s tracks and the soundscape seeks to match the beauty of the visuals.
In this banner year for cinematography, Ed Lachman, the same DP behind Haynes’s Far From Heaven, has ample competition for superlative standings. Lubezki is playing with extended shots and fancy new equipment in The Revenant, John Seale kept chaos framed perfectly in the ever moving Mad Max: Fury Road, and Deakins spans the multi-hued desert sky in the heart-pulsing Sicario. Lachman, with his rain spattered windows and coy drifting shots showcasing the intricate design of the film, his photographic sensibilities set the presence of the movie. Almost surreal in color and detail, this film drifts from reality to the blurred but vibrant world of budding romance, particularly intense and puzzling with the novelty for these women. I could stare at Rooney Mara through a car window, romantically glancing at the passersby, for an entire movie, so the rest of the film is just icing on my cake.
Expecting a performance more in line with Blue Jasmine, that assumption still baffling in my mind, Cate Blanchett’s performance in Carol is a magnificent portrayal of a woman being torn between her separating married life and the life she wishes to pursue. Despite harsh conflicts with her soon-to-be-ex Harge (an often inebriated but forceful Kyle Chandler), she masters cool flirting with Therese and fierce fighting with her combatants. Her chic style matches her usually cool persona as this gorgeous society woman.
Rooney Mara is simply a revelation. In the book Therese falls victim to her youth and inexperience and moods. Therese in the movie is a somewhat older but more wholly realized individual. Certainly inexperienced, she knows what she has gotten herself into, but she knows even more what she wants. Her thoughts and eyes drift toward Carol, and every line is full of a shaky desire; fear plays in her eyes as her concerned voice slips through smiling lips. When asked of her intentions with her boyfriend, she responds with girlish indecision and timid incredulity at her response. I’ll let her actually say it, though. Building off her previous work as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’s hard to believe this is the same actress, despite the same sex tendencies. A gorgeous marvel of acting growth, Mara is able to out perform someone like Blanchett in a truly outstanding role.
Her inclusion in so many supporting actress lists is insulting to this performance. She has possibly more screen time than Blanchett, and the book focuses primarily on Therese. This couple is on equal leading parts, but Blanchett’s star power–who really can top her of recent? Streep even isn’t getting the type of juicy roles she has been holding–placed her as the secondary role. The true supporting female in this movie is Carol’s best friend Abby, played by Sarah Paulson with intricate characterization for her too brief appearances. Supportive, protective, and mildly conflicted on her position in this affair, Paulson again proves her versatility, commitment as a character actress, and value in any role she takes.
Todd Haynes has put together yet another fantastic movie and reminds us after his long absence that he is one of, if not the, most apt directors with women, LGBT content, and the 1950’s. Carol is a quiet film, but the quality and warmth bleed through its snowy landscapes. A finer collection of talents could not top this movie this year. Spoiler alert, this is my new #1, and I don’t see that changing.