Carol: A Love Story in the Shadows

Like one of his filmmaking heroes, Douglas Sirk, director Todd Haynes is a master of discretion. As often as not, his movies (Safe, I’m Not There., Far From Heaven) work on more than one level, with undercurrents running just beneath the surface. To glibly describe Carol as a lesbian drama is to miss the point. This is a story of love, with all its quixotic and unaccountable qualities.

Phyllis Nagy adapted the semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley), who originally published the book under a pseudonym in 1952. She didn’t dare use her real name at the time, and her manuscript was turned down by more than one publisher.

Cate Blanchett-Kyle Chandler

Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Co.

Cate Blanchett plays the title character, an elegant New York sophisticate of the early 1950s who is in the process of divorcing her husband (Kyle Chandler). He discovered her having an affair with a woman (Sarah Paulson) and while it confused and shattered him, he still isn’t ready to let her go. Blanchett has remained friendly with Paulson, but when she chances to meet a department-store salesgirl (Rooney Mara) her passions are aroused once more.

The confident Blanchett and the timid Mara seem to have little in common, but their attraction is mutual and deep-rooted. The relationship is complicated by Blanchett’s devotion to her young daughter, and the awkwardness of Mara having to put off not one but two ardent suitors, who couldn’t possibly understand what is happening to her.

Rooney Mara

Photo Courtesy of Weinstein Co.

Although the film’s emotions are immediate and contemporary, Haynes never lets us forget that this is a period piece, set at a time when homosexuality existed in the shadows of society and such matters were never discussed in polite company. The physical details (Judy Becker’s production design, Sandy Powell’s costumes, and Ed Lachman’s cinematography) are so perfect that they never call attention to themselves. This allows us to focus on the characters, as we should.

Carol is both subtle and sinuous, brought to a peak of fervor by the masterful Blanchett and the quietly impressive Mara. As their story unfolds, we feel their pain and anguish—having to hide their feelings from everyone around them—as well as their ardor. Yet Haynes remains discreet throughout.

Physically and emotionally, Carol is an exquisite piece of work.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024