Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical book The Price of Salt, which was originally published in 1952 under a pseudonym to distance herself from the controversy around the representation of a lesbian relationship.
More than 60 years on, that controversy no longer remains an issue and what remains is an utterly beguiling romantic drama led by a pair of terrific performances.
Cate Blanchett plays the title character, a mother in the midst of a complicated divorce. By chance she meets Rooney Mara’s Therese and the two fall into a pattern of orbiting eachother, initially from afar and slowing gathering momentum and intimacy.
The film is far from a conventional love story precisely because that just wasn’t possible at the time. Every turn towards Therese estranges Carol further from her family and especially her young daughter, with cruel legal bargaining threatening to tear it all apart.
This make the familiar moments we’re used to in these stories much more tentative, with the slow pace adding immeasurably to the drama as the two women circle eachother before inevitably being drawn together.
Mara probably has the most screen time and provides her best performance to date; she’s at a fluid time in her life and open to the possibility of a new experience. She’s young and easily led, and these negative aspects of the character are explored as she tries to find her place in the world.
The film truly belongs to Blanchett though, who is guaranteed to gain yet more awards notice in the coming months. Her Carol is slippery, with a public face and a private pain she can’t share with anyone. She’s older but not always wiser and plays with a deliciously sultry accent while sporting some incredible fashions crafted by Sandy Powell.
The tech specs are gorgeous as well, starting with the cinematography by Edward Lachman. Shot on 16mm film, it has an almost documentary quality at odds with our expectations for a period film but it’s perfectly suited to a story of stolen glances and unspoken affection, while it also ties in with the street photography by Mara’s character.
Another powerful element is Carter Burwell’s score. He’s known for pared back melodies and constructs several memorable themes here which are woven wonderfully into the drama as it unfolds.
And behind it all is director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) who impresses once again with only his sixth feature. Without sinking into frequent melodrama, he’s constructed a restrained and emotional love story with two leading characters that feel real, set against a backdrop of intolerance and misunderstanding. A masterpiece.