Todd Haynes’s Carol takes its source material from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, written at a time when its subject matter was considered taboo and where its hopeful conclusion was unfathomable to many of the readers. There’s a Hitchcock connection here as Highsmith is primarily known for writing the book in which Strangers on a Train is based, but The Price of Salt (in which Carol is based) tells a lesbian romance in which she used an alias to release it. Sixty plus years later, the film serves as an often engaging and very well acted tale of a different time in which this particular love story was considered toxic.
Set in New York City in the 1950s (with beautiful production design and first rate cinematography), Cate Blanchett plays the title character. She’s a well to do housewife with a young daughter going through a rough divorce. Her estrangement from her husband (an always solid Kyle Chandler) is not explored in great depths, but we soon learn part of the issue was her affair with a long time friend (Sarah Paulson, who’s currently giving Emmy worthy work on FX’s O.J. limited series). Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara) in a department store as she’s Christmas shopping and the two are quickly taken with one another. Therese, an aspiring photographer, is stuck in a listless relationship with Richard (Jake Lacy) and she quickly begins to accept Carol’s overtures for lunch dates and eventually, a road trip. As their relationship grows, so does the drama surrounding Carol’s divorce proceedings in which her sexuality can be used as an excuse for her to lose custody of her child.
This picture moves along at a pace that some critics would describe as deliberate, which can fairly be called slow in this case. The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy focuses on the couple with the supporting characters relegated to the sidelines. It’s quite helpful that Blanchett and Mara both give strong performances. Ms. Blanchett has the flashier role, but Mara is equally as impressive with a quieter role in which she believably conveys this young woman figuring herself out with a woman who’s grown more comfortable with who she is.
I’m sure this source material was considerably more shocking in its era and Carol now stands as a technically pleasing love affair with two actresses shining in their parts.
*** (out of four)