Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January) wrote The Price of Salt under a pseudonym back in 1952, based loosely on her own experiences. In 1990 the book was republished under her real name, and retitled Carol at her request. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy – who has only previously written one other screenplay, Mrs. Harris – wrote the first draft of the screenplay twenty years ago. Now after eleven years in development Carol has finally made it to the big screen under the very capable direction of Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).
Set in the 1950s, Carol sees twenty-something Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) working in a department store while pursuing her love for photography. Her boyfriend Richard (Jack Lacy) wants to marry her; she isn’t quite sold on the idea. Enter Carol (Cate Blanchett), a well to do older woman who is raising a young daughter in a loveless marriage with husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). After Therese and Carol meet in the store, a relationship blooms, affecting their lives in different ways.
Todd Haynes delivers a beautiful portrayal of Highsmith’s story, to the point where you might find yourself wishing you could go back in time to 1950s New York. (That is, before you remember the bigotry.) He captures the beauty in the two women’s relationship with one another in a restrained, yet effective fashion. Lingering glances and long pauses are aplenty, though they are never frustrating or boring. The film does contain a great deal of shots of its main characters gazing out of car windows looking pensive, but these scenes are so effective you can barely criticise this aspect.
Cate Blanchett almost risks overdoing it in a role which is fairly exaggerated to start with, but she’s got this folks. She’s ALWAYS got it. In her big fur coats and with her highly cultivated persona Carol is ripe for mocking, but Blanchett conveys the hidden intensity and longing behind the mask with poise. Rooney Mara is equally compelling as the innocent, doe-eyed Therese, saying more when she isn’t actually saying anything at all. She may be committing Oscars category fraud with her “supporting” actress nomination for her 71 minutes of screen time, but it’s still a performance worth celebrating.
Carol wraps up a strong year in mainstream(ish) queer cinema, following on from 2015 releases Holding the Man and Freeheld. There is a similar age gap between the two protagonists here as in Freeheld, however unlike in that film, here it is the older woman doing the pursuing. Initially there seems to be a significant power imbalance between the wise and experienced Carol, and the innocent young Therese. However, the film portrays Therese’s growth, and Blanchett and Mara have a believable chemistry. The film is thankfully devoid of lesbian stereotypes, nor does it waste time on unnecessary dialogue and overdone self-reflection. Haynes deftly balances the drama with the lighter interactions between Carol and Therese, with a hefty dose of that Highsmith intrigue thrown in for good measure. Together, a simple story, phenomenal performances and impeccable direction make Carol a winner.