Film Review: Carol

by Carrie Kahn on December 11, 2015

The price of love: Blanchett, Mara deliver powerful performances in period romance

Carol (Cate Blanchett, l.) shares a tender moment with Therese (Rooney Mara).

Director Todd Haynes returns to familiar settings and themes in his new film Carol, a picture that can be considered a companion piece to his excellent 2002 film Far from Heaven. Both films are set on the east coast in the 1950s, and both concern the suppression of true selves and true loves under the weight of a repressive and unaccepting society.

Whereas Haynes both wrote and directed Far from Heaven, though, with Carol, he only directs; screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapts the source material, Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance The Price of Salt. Highsmith, probably best known to audiences for her psychological thrillers such as Strangers on a Train (which Hitchcock famously adapted) and the Tom Ripley series, wrote The Price of Salt under a pseudonym, an act in itself that speaks to the hostile times in which the novel was both written and set.

The care with which Haynes and Nagy honor the spirit and setting of the Highsmith novel is breathtaking. Haynes has even shot the picture on super 16mm film, to reproduce the hazy, grainy effect of 1950s-era movies. And all the sets and costumes are spot on; aesthetically, the picture is just lovely to look at, bursting with vibrant, saturated colors and period details, from the clothing to the cars to the nearly incessant smoking.

Cate Blanchett’s Carol is more than an little distracted dancing with her estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).

And the story itself, rich with unspoken longing and repressed desire, unfolds with an almost unbearable tension that echoes what the characters are experiencing. The story concerns Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett, magnificent in Hitchcockian icy blonde mode), a well-to-do housewife on the verge of divorcing her angry and jealous husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). One day while shopping in Manhattan for a Christmas gift for her young daughter Rindy, Carol meets salesgirl and aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara, channeling Audrey Hepburn), and a bond forms between them so instantly and so strongly that neither quite realize what has hit them, especially Therese, the younger, more inexperienced of the two.

Blanchett and Rooney do a remarkable job portraying two people falling in love despite the severe obstacles around them; Haynes gives us one of the most moody, atmospheric, melancholy, and yet thrilling love stories in recent memory. Harge, angry and threatened by his wife’s insistence on divorce and her relationships with women, demands custody of their daughter (citing a “morality clause” in the divorce legal paperwork, and Carol’s “aberrant behavior,” in a sickening scene in a lawyer’s office), and the ramifications for Carol and Therese are grave. How Harge’s spite and the looming custody battle affect Carol and Therese’s relationship make up the bulk of the film, and you may find yourself unable to exhale until the picture’s end.

The Golden Globe nominations were announced Thursday morning, and Carol received the most nominations of any picture, earning acting nods for Blanchett and Mara, as well as Best Picture and Best Director nominations. These most recent accolades cap a spate of other award noms by various critics and industry groups, including a Best Actress win for Mara at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, at which Haynes also was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Given the film’s impeccable visual style and stellar performances, such recognition is well deserved.

Jake Lacy’s Richard can’t understand why Therese (Rooney Mara) is reluctant to go abroad with him.

And while Mara and Blanchett (who gives her most raw, emotionally searing performance since 2013’s Blue Jasmine) are flawless, the supporting actors also turn in fine work; Jake Lacy, who is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s go-to guy for earnest, boy-next-door types (see Girls and Obvious Child) creates another indelible good guy in Richard, a suitor of Therese’s who grows frustrated with her burgeoning friendship with Carol, and can’t understand why she won’t commit to him. Sarah Paulson, too, as Carol’s former lover and best friend Abby, brings nuance and world-weary wisdom to a role that could have easily been a tossed aside “best friend” part. Carrie Brownstein also appears toward the end of the film in a tiny, nearly silent part that only makes you wonder who she knew in the film production to get herself cast. Still, she’s got the ’50s look down, and it’s refreshing to see her on the big screen.

Terrific performances aside, though, the true brilliance of Haynes’s film stems from its ability to simultaneously make us yearn for the bygone era we see depicted on screen, at the same time we silently condemn it and are repelled by it. The vivid colors, the lovely, stylish, fitted clothes, the elegance and charm of the Manhattan of martinis, rotary phones, ice boxes, and manual typewriters are achingly beautiful on the surface, and we can’t help but delight in their presentation. But the one thing all the red lipstick, fur coats, and fedora hats can’t hide is the stunning and brutal sexism and homophobia of the era. Much like Matthew Weiner did in Mad Men, Haynes uses our nostalgia for retro fashions and seemingly simpler times as a vehicle to entice us with pretty packaging, and then, once he has us enthralled, helps us explore the deeper, underlying social issues that shaped both who we were then, and who we’ve become now.

If you want a double bill that not only looks terrific on celluloid, but will also let you reflect on both how far, and, in many ways, how very little, we’ve come since the 1950s, go see Carol, and then Trumbo, in which Bryan Cranston gives a tour de force performance as the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in McCarthy-era Hollywood. That’ll guarantee you plenty to discuss over your Christmas ham and gimlets.


Carol opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, with bookings at other Landmark theaters soon to follow.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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