Is it controversial to have movie where the central relationship is between two women? What if it’s about two women attracted to each other when life is making it difficult for them? What if all this is in the 1950s? Well, maybe it’s a bit trickier then.
Carol comes from director Todd Haynes and is adapted from the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, published in 1951, which portrayed a lesbian relationship positively, quite a controversy at the time. And now here we are sixty years later. The movie starts naturally sometime in the 1950s, just like the novel, with young Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, who is 30 and playing younger here) working in a Manhattan department store in the toy section. The start of the movie is slow and careful, with very few words and tightly written conversations.
Therese seems lonely and feels disconnected from boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who in contrast is pushing her to travel with him to France. The implication is that he plans to propose there, but we rarely see her reciprocate his affections. She has her own true interests, specifically in photography, but it seems few people notice it. And then we get an interesting parallel. One of Richard’s friends, Dannie, works at the New York Times and pays attention to Therese and her photography in particular. She’s flattered but not particularly interested.
And then there’s Carol. One day in the store, a mysterious and beautiful older lady (Cate Blanchett, who is 46 and playing an unclear age — in the books she’s early 30’s) approaches Therese to ask for assistance buying a gift for her daughter. Therese is entranced by Carol, but that might be that, except that Carol accidentally forgets her expensive gloves. At first I thought Carol did it on purpose, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. So Therese mails the gloves back to Carol, and thus begins their tentative relationship.
It is unclear how the two truly feel about each other, especially to each other. Carol is going through a divorce and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler playing against type as a complex cad) thinks it’s another homosexual affair. This becomes trickier after he comes to Carol’s house suddenly to take away their daughter and sees Therese there, who was invited ostensibly to “help” out. The romance continues despite the difficulties in their lives, building slowly and with a lot of longing looks. Whether or not it works out I won’t say, but it is surprisingly not the same as the book.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are getting raves for their performances here and it’s quite understandable. This is a very different sort of role for Mara than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the movie takes advantage of her slight form and exaggeratedly large eyes. Cate Blanchett glides through scenes with grace and hidden vulnerability, wearing clothing that make her seem taller until she is pitted against her husband. The movie is filled with scenes of silent longing and pain, showing off two exceptionally good performances of often little or no dialogue at all.
The supporting characters are also good, although only Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, as Carol’s friend Abby, get much in the way of depth. Therese’s potential boyfriends always seemed quite clichéd and boring, I suppose intentionally, but there was never a real risk to me that they represented a realistic path for Therese’s affections if she had her way. Kyle Chandler though was phenomenal in his own right as a man struggling with love and hate all mixed up together.
The story may not exactly be the most complicated one out there, especially considering the era it came from. Instead it often feels like you’re in the middle of a mix of emotions and atmosphere as the movie uses subtlety to convince you that these two are falling in love. I didn’t really think the script did that, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt because I think it was intentional to reflect how furtive such a relationship would have to be in those days. If it wasn’t, that’s a bit of a failing of the movie, because otherwise it’s just the stellar acting that convinces you.
Everyone seems like they’re in another time, and there’s a sense that this is another time and place. In a weird way, the movie can’t allow normalization of this sort of relationship because the time period doesn’t permit it, or at least that’s what it seems to be saying. This is a movie far too much about characters, “long stares,” and creating a sense of place. It’s a true indie movie, but it’s a pretty good one.