Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: November 27th
Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, which was released under pseudonym Claire Morgan, is regarded as a pioneering work in the field of gay literature, not least because she not only presented her characters as fully round human beings and treated their relationship with respect, but also dared to allow her characters a happy ending. This last fact is all the more impressive, given that even today, the majority of the portrayals of gay relationships tend to maintain their focus on repressive nature of the society around them rather than viewing them as two human beings in a loving relationship. While Carol, the latest film by director Todd Haynes, does dwell into the social conditions for the LGBT community in 1950’s America, its main focus, like its source material, is on the relationship itself.
That relationship is the one between Carol (Cate Blanchett), a upper-class housewife, and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young woman working in the toy department at a large department store in 1950’s New York City. Therese helps Carol to pick out a Christmas gift for her young daughter and soon returns the gloves that Carol accidently (or perhaps on purpose) left on Therese’s counter. Carol takes Therese out for a Martini lunch as a means of a thank you for returning the gloves, and slowly a relationship the two starts to develop with Therese confused about her true feelings for Carol at first. At home, Carol is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who is desperate to maintain his marriage while also resentful of Carol’s true desires, to the point where he is willing to stop Carol from gaining any kind of custody of their daughter.
It would certainly be easy to see Carol as a kind of companion piece to his previous 50’s set melodrama Far From Heaven. While it is certainly true that both films focus on similar themes, stylistically Haynes abandons the Douglas Sirk influenced Technicolor in favour of a wintery grey colour palette which in turns works wonders with the grainy super-16mm that the film was shot in. With numerous shots being framed within window frames, it at time resembles an Edward Hopper painting, which further establishes the time period and allows us a sense of observation to Carol and Therese’s budding romance. This look, along with the superb production and costume design, also further brings about the sense of time and place to the drama.
For all the surface brilliance of the film, what truly makes it stand out are the astonishing performances of Blanchett and Mara. Blanchett in particular is outstanding, a performance that goes beyond her already high standards. The role of Carol could have easily been portrayed with melodramic hysterics, but instead Blanchett puts in a performance that is beautifully restrained. While the role of Therese may not be as eye catching as the one of Carols’, Mara is very much Blanchett’s equal through out the entire drama. A shy and timid character, Therese doesn’t initially stand out, almost serving as a blank space for the audience’s own thoughts. As Carol progresses it becomes clear that despite its title, this is Therese’s story; one about a young woman discovering the person who she really is, not just in terms of her sexual orientation, but of gaining the confidence to grow as a person, and Mara plays it superbly.
Carol can been seen as a master class in just about everything involved in filmmaking, from direction to acting, to set and costume design. Perhaps the biggest compliment I could give Carol is that even though it blatantly tips its hat towards David Lean’s wonderful Brief Encounter — both films share the same kind of structure of being told in flashback after a conversation between our two leads is interrupted by a minor character — at no point does Carol feel like it is under the shadow of Lean’s classic. And believe me, that is no small achievement.