Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” Carol is about two women who love each other. To some, this is still a radical idea. In 1950s America, this was even more so. Part of what makes Carol such an extraordinary piece of cinema, and it is indeed that, is that film is not merely about this concept, even as that sits in the background of every scene.
The women at the heart of things are Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara). The former is a mother and wife, well, of sorts. Of some social status and wealth, Carol is in the last days of her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler), a man whose not exactly fond of being seen as a person capable of having a failed marriage. Therese’s life is less complicated, which of course means it’s much more. Younger, even if an age is never set, Therese’s future is ahead of her. She has a boyfriend, of whom she cares for somewhat, as well as a kind of aimless talent in photography. Additionally, Therese has a job at a department store selling dolls. This is where our leads meet and there lives forever change.
Directed by Todd Haynes, Carol is one more marker in a phenomenal career that has so far featured Safe, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. This may be his finest achievement yet; which would be quite the feat. Here Haynes displays a knack for the melodrama like few other modern directors, letting the theatrics of a custody dispute mingle comfortably alongside the thrall of passion. With the magical work of Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation, Haynes makes an obvious story that is layered far deeper than it might appear at first glance. Characters decisions are rarely as they seem. This is not to imply that Carol is a movie of twists or turns. Instead it’s something greater; a movie about real people.
One of the most astounding pleasures a picture can develop is that of the interpersonal and how that is never the same with two people. Men and women aren’t innately trying to hide their true selves in every day conversation. They do, however, open up to their friends, lovers, co-workers and the like differently. Haynes hones in on this, with Carol and Therese finding a warm, largely unfiltered kinship. The beauty is in the details and the ways that even those you yearn for have silences that leave you curious.
Blanchett and Mara are magnificent, each using their every smirk, glance and hesitation to speak volumes. As Haynes allows and the script provides, each revels in the grey they are allowed to dig through. Neither has a character sans flaws. The same can be said of those in their company. Chandler’s jealous, insecure husband is a person, not a trope. Harge doesn’t understand how things have become how they are, nor does he understand why things can’t go back to how they were. This is why he makes the decisions he does, with Chandler finding that perfect way to execute this anguish. Add in Sarah Paulson as Carol’s oldest friend who steals a few scenes of her own and what we have is an ensemble that takes your breath away with their talent.
Everywhere you turn though, Carol excels. Carter Burwell’s score haunts and moans, with a piano that longs to run as its strings pull back the reins. Edward Lachman’s cinematography lifts the tone Haynes crafts higher, as rain-soaked nights burrow into one’s bones and the allure of a car’s confines sing with intimacy.
It all comes back to Haynes though. The way he lets a wry line of a dialogue accent a scene or has a scene hang around a few seconds longer to let the melancholy or growing affections linger. In the wrong hands with all of these tools and players involved, this could be a cold or heavy-handed depiction of forbidden love. Not with Haynes though. With Haynes Carol about as perfect as you get.