Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Rated PG.
Shortly after the Second World War, young Texas-born writer Patricia Highsmith, about to make a name for herself with Strangers on a Train, spent a few weeks working at Bloomingdale’s. Uncharacteristically ensconced in the doll department, she spied an ethereal blond and—much in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock, who would direct Strangers—fantasized about who this remote, fur-coated figure might be.
The result was her second novel, The Price of Salt, which proved radioactive to her publisher, but was lucratively issued under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The problem: the lead characters are lesbians, and they don’t die in the end. (Highsmith’s inspiration did, but that’s another story.)
In Todd Haynes’s flawless Carol, Cate Blanchett perfectly embodies the title character, a suburban socialite, slightly vacuous but effortlessly elegant, who crosses paths with dirt-poor photographer Therese Belivet (an equally strong Rooney Mara), herself working temporarily in a Manhattan department store over Christmas of 1952. They’re magnetically drawn to each other, and their orbit pushes away everyone else, including Therese’s nagging boyfriend (Jake Lacy) and Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband (Kyle Chandler), who starts a war over their young daughter. Only the older, wealthier woman’s best friend and ex-lover (Sarah Paulson) seems able to weather the following storm.
Starting with sleek costumes by Oscar magnet Sandy Powell and production design by American Hustle’s Judy Becker, Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman (who also shot Far From Heaven, Mildred Pierce, and I’m Not There for him) utilized 16mm film, blew that up to 35mm, and then transferred that to digital, capitalizing on the resulting explosion of grain and distorted visual artifacts. But despite the delirious settings and technical tricks, the tale is not frozen in amber.
A midsection road trip opens the story to faster-paced genre elements. (This was the only entry in Highsmith’s oeuvre not to feature a violent crime, but there’s still a gun in the works.) The result may be too tastefully restrained for some viewers, but for most it will play as a dream fugue of heart-piercing beauty. Carol captures the specifics of one relationship thwarted by Eisenhower-era conventions even as it whispers timeless truth about the affairs of almost any heart.