If you’re familiar with the work of the director Todd Haynes, you’ll have noticed that he likes to explore periods of history that have become associated in our minds with certain genres of film or music. He reinvents (some might say subverts) these period pieces by bringing in themes of sex, race and class that movies could barely touch back then. In the case of genre films, he has chosen the Hollywood melodrama of the 1940s and 50s as his playground, as evidenced by Far From Heaven from 2002 with Julianne Moore, his Mildred Pierce miniseries with Kate Winslet from 2011, and now Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s daring 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Forbidden love is once again the theme, this time the love between two women.
Adapted from the Highsmith book by the eminent playwright Phyllis Nagy, Carol takes place in the 1950s, mostly in New York, and despite the title is really the story of a young sales clerk and aspiring photographer named Therese, played by Rooney Mara. Therese has a boyfriend, but is inexperienced in love. A chance encounter with a beautiful, mysterious, and sophisticated married woman named Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, plunges Therese into a deeply romantic obsession that won’t let go, especially when Carol shows interest in her. As it turns out, Carol had a brief lesbian relationship before, which was discovered by her jealous husband, who is now determined to do anything, including threatening to take custody of their little girl, to prevent it happening again. Facing the danger of exposure and social ostracism, Therese still cannot resist the pull of her love object, and as they get to know each other, the affair turns into something stronger and more compelling—real love.
Haynes has mastered the art of classic style romantic melodrama, carefully and exquisitely constructed through a series of gestures and conversations that conceals passionate emotion behind futile attempts at propriety. The look of the picture is amazing—the production design with the 1950s décor, clothes, and cars, is a stunning recreation of that era. Haynes’ regular cinematographer, Edward Lachmann shot the film in 16 millimenter and then blew it up to 35, which gives it some of the rich grain that you see in 1950s color film.
Blanchett and Mara are completely committed to their roles, and together they create a feeling of blissful insularity, of being alone together, apart from the world, floating in a romantic bubble. Of course the world will pop that bubble, but the story doesn’t take a predictable route. Blanchett also manages to take her title character, who starts as an inscrutable romantic object, and reveal the subjectivity beneath the glamour. Haynes has created a gorgeous experience of heightened emotional reality. The superb, almost cold precision of the film’s style allows Carol to help us gain access to surprisingly intense feelings.