The most surprising thing to me about Todd Hayne’s Carol is that it is a pretty faithful adaptation of a book from 1952 called The Price of Salt. It is a lesbian pulp fiction novel written by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote Strangers on a Train and faced struggles because of her own sexuality. According to Wikipedia, she was also a bit of a drunk, a racist, and an anti-semite. She sounds pretty intense, but the rough edges of that author are far removed from this film.
It’s Christmas 1952 and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, having recovered from Pan) is working in one of the giant New York department stores that seem to show up in every yuletide movie set in this period. Therese, like every single person in their twenties, is trying to figure out how her life should go and is deeply unsure of her current state. She wants to be a photographer, but isn’t really pursuing that in a meaningful way. She has a nice boyfriend (Jake Lacy), but she doesn’t want to go all the way and she really doesn’t want to talk about his idea of a long trip to Europe. Then one day she meets Carol.
Carol, as played by Cate Blanchett, is an older woman who we soon will find is going through a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), leaving her similarly listless and lonely. Therese is immediately drawn to Carol and the two eventually strike up a friendship. But as things get more intense, their relationship begins to face the realities of the fifties, which are even harsher than the ones shown in that other romantic movie that people liked this year, Brooklyn.
I have seen director Todd Haynes’ film Far From Heaven and it’s hard to not see the similarities between these two movies. Working from a script by Phyllis Nagy (who wrote another Patricia Highsmith adaptation, The Talented Mr. Ripley), Haynes does an amazing job recreating the feel of fifties melodramas while telling a story that would be shocking back then but is insanely tame by modern standards. Both romances feature an older woman who is scorned by a husband who is less upset about their marriage falling apart than he is about his own masculinity being challenged. Both are really good.
I think I’ll take well-acted melodrama over subtle innuendo most of the time, and Mara, Blanchett, and Chandler are some of my favorite actors. Rooney Mara brings a tenderness to Therese that I didn’t know she had in her after seeing her play more calculating characters in The Social Network, Side Effects, and Her. Kyle Chandler captures the intense self-hatred of Harge, clearly a man without much experience not getting his way. Cate Blanchett, as always, demands your attention whenever she’s on screen. For the movie to work we have to fall for her mysterious allure, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t hooked after her very first scene.
Carol is simply, elegantly, a story about about two people who can’t resist each other. In dabbles into the differences between romantic love, platonic love, and maternal love, but it’s overwhelmingly a story about two people who have had a bunch of obstacles thrown in their way for stupid reasons. And the most melancholy thing about that is we know that for these two, there would be no hope of true acceptance. In 1952 a woman could hardly wear pants, there was still a long, hard fight for acceptance ahead. Does that make their love futile, or does it simply remind us that true love is something worth fighting for?