Nobody peels back the layers of 1950s Sirkian melodrama better than Todd Haynes, who once again explores the underbelly of repression underneath the all-American facade. In his latest film, the subtle and superb “Carol”, he escapes the confinements of suburbia for the hopefulness of the big city, only to find it similarly stifling. So there’s a common thread of illicit passion shared between this film and 2002’s “Far from Heaven”, but “Carol” surprisingly also finds Haynes at his most hopeful that such loves can survive.
Another surprise is that Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s book, “The Price of Salt”. Surprising because this isn’t a dark, murky thriller, but a swooning, immaculate love story told in Haynes’ trademark attention to period detail. Furtive glances, often seen through frosty shop windows and from across wide-open rooms, are exchanged frequently between unhappily married Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and shopgirl Therese Bellivet (Rooney Mara). The latter’s name sounds awkward coming off the tongue of everyone other than the silky Carol, who makes it sound like it should belong to the princess of some far-off land. She has that kind of gift, to make every word, to make her every move, some kind of sexual allure. Even their first encounter at the department store Therese works is strangely seductive, despite it being an unremarkable sales transaction. Carol accidentally (maybe?) leaves behind her gloves, Therese takes the time to return them, and the two women use this as a pretense for further communication.
Of course, there’s more to it than simple courtesy that they stay in touch, although much of the film finds the women denying any such attraction. Or at least, we see that denial in Therese, who has more than a few hapless male suitors chasing after her. But to give in to her attraction to Carol would be going “against the grain” of her life, not to mention society as a whole. For Carol, who is in the middle of a divorce with the cold and abusive Harge (Kyle Chandler), to give in to temptation could mean losing custody of her daughter forever. And of course there’s the casually accepted misdiagnosis of lesbianism as some kind of mental illness, which men could easily use as a trump card for revenge against their spouse. Harge is the kind of guy who would do exactly that kind of thing. So Carol is always on her guard; she and Therese stay reserved, but the attraction is undeniable and can only be held at bay for so long.
It’s easy to see why both women would fall hard for one another. Carol has the kind of poise that a mousy girl like Therese would gravitate to. Carol has been under Harge’s thumb for so long that her yearning for someone to love is almost painful to watch. There’s so much longing between them, and Haynes, along with screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, builds up that romantic tension slowly until we too are fit to burst with the anticipation. When the moment finally happens, it’s like the floodgates have been opened, but only just enough to prevent a full-blown tidal wave. This isn’t “Blue Is the Warmest Color”, folks, the passion displayed is meant to be savored.
Both women are bewitching in their own ways, giving wonderfully tectured performances that only grow more complex. Naturally, Blanchett is the more glamorous, but we never recognize Carol as haughty, and her situation worsens we begin to see the cracks in her foundation. Mara’s role is less showy but as Therese there’s a deceptive air of mystery surrounding her. Separately, Blanchett and Mara are very good but together they are undeniably tremendous. “Carol” may be Haynes’ most straight-forward narrative but that shouldn’t be taken to mean it’s lacking either in style or emotional impact. This film is absolutely breath-taking and will leave audiences similarly entranced by its spell.