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 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.
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.