Carol, the latest film from director Todd Haynes, is a wintry tale of waspy lesbianism, culled from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt and adapted for the screen by Phyllis Nagy. In it, Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird (a name as full of literal allusions as Jane Eyre), an icy-on-the-outside but warm-on-the-inside housewife living in New Jersey. Carol is in the middle of divorcing her demanding husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) when she locks eyes with a girl behind the counter of a department store. It’s Christmas, and Carol’s out buying presents for her young daughter, Rindy. The shopgirl (played by Rooney Mara), a budding photographer named Therese Belivet (a terrific name), sees Carol first, but a mutual attraction blossoms between them as their eyes meet.
The film charts their relationship at a time—the 1950s—when sexuality was understood less as a marker of identity and more as a behavior. And yet, it would be an oversimplification to imply that behavior was the only way sexual relationships and attraction are understood in this movie. When Therese is talking with her sort-of boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who’s been nagging her to go Europe with him, Therese asks Richard if he’s ever been in love with a man before. Richard’s put off by the question, and responds flatly, “No…But I knew someone like that.”
Haynes handles this material masterfully. He has several difficult lines to walk: As Carol is about a secret relationship set in the past, Haynes has a built-in dramatic pull that’s maybe too easy. In some ways, Highsmith had it easier writing this book in the time period in which it was set. Making a period piece about the plight of homosexuals in the 1950s can result in something overly maudlin or cheap, since viewers can simply say, “thank goodness times have changed.” But Haynes doesn’t milk us for nostalgia-sympathy. The story is straightforward, and doesn’t present itself as some grand statement about a whole group of people. This is a specific love story about two specific women who were caught up in the turbulence of a taboo-laden era.
Maybe the problem with Carol is that, since it’s set in the 1950s and, like Haynes’s previous period piece about a gay relationship, Far From Heaven, recalls actual films from that era, it’s hard not to wish for stars from that era to magically appear on the screen and rescue the film from the pitfalls of prestige. Contemporary stars are probably better actors, but there’s a lack of magnetism to Cate Blanchett and especially Rooney Mara. Blanchett resembles Eleanor Parker, who was also icily sexy and severe (though admittedly provocative), and Rooney Mara looks like an annoyed, self-serious version of Audrey Hepburn. (Her hairstyle imitates the Hepburn-waif look circa Sabrina and Funny Face.) When we remember that we’re getting very somber and serious performances from two admittedly fine actresses, we may start to feel that Carol is medicine, not entertainment. It’s moving and gorgeous to look at (the cinematography is by Edward Lachman and the production design by Judy Becker), but it feels like a wax figure: expertly rendered but hollow on the inside.
Far From Heaven had more feeling to it. (Although I was admittedly a teenager when I saw that movie, and was completely bowled over by the film, especially Julianne Moore’s performance.) But that’s not say that Carol has no feeling. And in fact, because Haynes doesn’t strain for prestige any more than necessary (by virtue of the subject matter and the period piece qualities of the film, and the actors), Carol becomes increasingly more effective and powerful as a story. You do feel for these women, who don’t really even understand themselves in a world that doesn’t seek to understand them.
And there is something absolutely thrilling about the way Carol looks. Todd Haynes is nothing if not a master of the period look: We feel completely immersed in 1952, and this kind of high-grade elegant nostalgic aesthetic isn’t as prolific as you might think. So many period pieces simply do not capture the look and feel as successfully as Carol. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s marvelously well-done, and Blanchett’s and Mara’s performances get better and better as the film goes along.
With Sarah Paulson, Cory Michael Smith, and John Magaro.