Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro, Kevin Crowley, Sadie Heim.
Director Todd Haynes returns to the morally conservative America of the 1950s for this nicely observed, sensitive, insightful and introspective coming of age story and intimate exploration of a female relationship, gender, loneliness, and queer sexuality in conservative America. But this moody story of forbidden love is largely a character driven piece, and has a different texture and feel than Haynes’ earlier and similarly themed Far From Heaven.
Carol (played by Cate Blanchett) is a sophisticated woman trapped in an unhappy marriage of convenience to the brutish Harge (Kyle Chandler). She is estranged from her boorish and emotionally distant husband, who suspects her proclivities but has so far tolerated them. While shopping for a Christmas present for her young daughter Carol spies the pretty but naive Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, from the US version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, etc), who works in the toy department. Their eyes meet and the attraction between the two is palpable. Carol is from a wealthy background, while aspiring photographer Therese comes from a more humble background.
When Carol inadvertently leaves her gloves behind in the store, Therese feels compelled to return them, and from there a friendship develops. Therese is dissatisfied with her life and is unsure how to react to her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy, from Love The Coopers, etc). The two women head out on a road journey where their relationship becomes more intimate, but they soon discover they are being followed and their conversations recorded by a private detective in the employ of Harge, who is looking for proof of Carol’s infidelities for the increasingly bitter divorce proceedings. He questions Carol’s fitness as a mother.
Carol is adapted from The Price Of Salt, an early semiautobiographical novel written by Patricia Highsmith in 1952 under a pseudonym because the lesbian themes were fairly risque and controversial for the time. The novel is regarded as an early classic of lesbian fiction. This is a different type of novel for Highsmith who is better known for her crime thrillers like Strangers On A Train, filmed by Hitchcock, and a series of thrillers featuring the enigmatic antihero Ripley. The novel has been adapted for the screen by her friend playwright Phyllis Nagy (Butterfly Kiss, etc), who spent some twenty years developing the project. Her script is more of an elegant and classy mood piece about sexuality, desire and obsession.
What holds the film together are the two central performances, both of which have been Oscar nominated and who share a palpable chemistry. A perfectly cast Blanchett brings a 50s grace and style to her performance, but she is a little cold and aloof and has a fragile beauty and subtly predatory nature. In a performance that earned her the top prize at Cannes, Mara is superb and her character gets the bigger arc; she begins the film as a naive, impressionable and innocent virginal girl but grows in strength and maturity as the film continues.
Chandler manages to make his potentially unlikeable Harge seem sympathetic as he plays him more as a broken man, emasculated by Carol’s lesbian tendencies. Sarah Paulson brings a poignant quality to her performance as Abby, Carol’s former lover turned friend and confidante. Lacy brings a touch of confusion and frustration to his role as Richard, Therese’s friend and admirer.
Haynes’ direction is subtle, restrained, unobtrusive and less subversive than usual, especially as he explores the shifting power dynamics between the two women. Carol is a classy production thanks to Carter Burwell’s evocative score and a soundtrack of 50s crooners, through to the production design from Judy Becker and Sandy Powell’s costumes, all of which reek of authentic 50s period detail. Regular cinematographer Edward Lachman has shot in soft focus and muted autumnal colours, and the desaturated palette is a far cry from the lush and glorious Technicolour of Far From Heaven. He has also shot in Super 16, which evokes the era perfectly. The look of the film has been largely inspired by photographers of that era. Often Lachman has shot characters and images through mirrors, car windows, doorways or through falling rain, a technique that is meant to give us some visual clues as to their emotional turmoil.