In 2002 American film director Todd Haynes made Far from heaven, his beautiful homage to the Douglas Sirk women melodrama of the 1950s. Then in 2011, there was Mildred Pierce, a five-hour miniserie for HBO. Starring Kate Winslet it was set in the 1930s. So, after watching Carol, you could say that Haynes is enamored with the past. Carol is adapted from the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel, The price of salt. It all starts when a man interrupts a conversation between his co-worker, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and an older woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Although we have no idea what was said, the atmosphere was charged with tension. As Therese looks out the car window, she can see Carol leave the Ritz-Carlton through the steamy glass. And she remembers when she first met Carol. That day they furtively glanced at each other from across a crowded Manhattan department store. Bang! It’s a “love at first sight” moment. If Therese had any doubts about her attraction to women, now is the turning point. Carol already knows. It’s Christmas and twentysomething Therese works in the toy department. Carol is there to buy a doll for her daughter. Although Therese has a boyfriend, we feel there is a certain lack of passion and enthusiasm, at least from Therese’s perspective. As for Carol, she is seeking divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). When Harge becomes aware of the two women’s relationship, he threatens to fight for sole custody of their daughter. He even hires a private investigator to have proofs he can bring up in court. Blanchett plays the lesbian seductress with painstaking attention to details, playing with Carol’s costume accessories : the gloves, the fur coat, the purse, the high heels, etc. All done with hushed tones, sultry, breathy voice. “I like the hat!”, she whispers to Therese, who is wearing a Santa Claus hat. Everything is meant to seduce. How she stand in the middle of the department store, the way she is pointing to her own hat, and that mischievous smile… That smile that lets Therese in on the joke, it says, “I know you want to, and you know you want to. So why don’t we?”. But Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy are in no hurry. The two women don’t even kiss until much later in the film, so the sex scene is even more passionate and meaningful because of that. Even if Rooney Mara has more screen time than Blanchett, Carol seems to be the more interesting character. It is only once Carol is over that we get the full impact and greatness of Mara’s understated performance. How do you play someone who is never sure of anything and who constantly doubts herself and the choices she makes? This is what it was like for gays and lesbians in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Mara’s Therese is uncommitted, dispassionate and awaiting something (somebody) who will her feel alive. And Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are brilliant together. I also want to note Sarah Paulson who plays Carol’s former lover. Haynes has cleverly brought back Far from heaven‘s costume designer Sandy Powell (Carol’s fur coat, wow!). But with Carol we are in the real 1950s, so cinematographer Edward Lachman films things in such a realistic, unvarnished light, that we are in the 1950s. Composer Carter Burwell is one of my favorite film composer, and in Carol he seems to be the glue that make it all work. At the end Carol left me and other reviewers at a lost for words. This is my favorite film of 2015. Simply put: Breathtaking!
You should know… Patricia Highsmith’s The price of salt was published in 1952 under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan because of the subject. It was popular among lesbians in the 1950s because it had an ending with the possibility of happiness that defied the lesbian pulp formula and because of the unconventional characters that defied stereotypes about lesbian characters.
And the Oscar went to… Carol did not win a single award. Best actress went to Brie Larson for Room, Best supporting Actress to Alicia Vikander for The Danosh girl. And Carter Burwel lost the Best score to 87 years old Ennio Morricone, who won his first Oscar for The hateful eight.
Based on the novel The price of salt by Patricia Highsmith