Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
In 1949, Patricia Highsmith, waiting to hear back from a publisher about a manuscript ("Strangers On a Train", maybe you've heard of it) wrote a novel about a relationship between a shy shopgirl and a much older housewife. The book, "The Price of Salt," eventually published in 1952 under a pseudonym, has long been a staple of LGBT studies for its depiction of "the closet" and 1950s conformist America. The book features a forbidden love story culminating in an extended "Lolita"-esque travelogue-criminal-getaway-across-America. In all of her books, Highsmith was obsessed by duality, subversion and obsession. "The Price of Salt" is her most openly romantic book and it is hard to believe it was written by the same woman who created the sociopath Tom Ripley, and who also once confessed to her journal: "One situation—maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness." But that's Highsmith. Always duality.
Director Todd Haynes has spent a career exploring repression and conformity in films like "Safe," "I'm Not There," "Far from Heaven," "Mildred Pierce" and now "Carol," based on Highsmith's novel (with adaptation by Phyllis Nagy). In "Carol," Haynes turns his eye on the "invisible" lesbian sub-culture of the 1950s closet. A lush emotional melodrama along the lines of the films of Douglas Sirk, Haynes' patron saint, "Carol" is often about its surfaces, their beauty contrasting with the scary duality of people, relationships. The surfaces in "Carol" are so seductive that one understands the ache to belong in that world.
Therese (Rooney Mara) works behind the toy counter at a department store in New York City. She has a sort-of boyfriend (Jake Lacy, so good in "Obvious Child"), and a swirling group of pals (all men), but there is something about her attitude behind that counter that suggests Therese is waiting ... for what she doesn't know. Then Carol, an elegant blonde, appears across the store floor (the camera floats past Carol, and then reverses back quickly: the camera version of a double-take). Their first interaction is business-like, but in reality it is a flirtatious scene, pierced with the thrill of danger.
Carol invites Therese to her house in New Jersey for visits. Carol and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) are separated, and fighting over access to their young daughter. When Harge starts proceedings to get sole custody, Carol whisks Therese away on an impulsive road trip, and out into America they go. The road trip is running from something and towards a place where their relationship has a possibility of existing.
Haynes films all of this with his exquisite eye for detail. Production designer Judy Becker, art director Jesse Rosenthal and set decorator Heather Loeffler create various settings (crappy motel rooms, dark New York bars, Carol's home, Therese's apartment) in a way that highlight the romance and the treachery of the situation. The color palette is a wash of light greens, deep pinks, gleaming gold, with pale tail-finned gas guzzlers roaring down empty roads. Carol and Therese are often shown staring through green-smudged or rain-streaked windows, a visual motif of their outsider status.
When the film is successful it shows the loneliness of people not allowed to be who they are, although "loneliness" doesn't cover it. It's more like alone-ness so acute the characters are "flung out of space", as Carol observes of Therese. When intimacy finally comes, it is accompanied by loss. First love is often like that, but in "Carol" it's intensified because their connection must remain hidden.
"Carol" stumbles when it seesaws its point of view. This is due in part to the adaptation. The book is told from Therese's perspective, and because of that you are never quite sure about Carol. Therese is kept on tenterhooks: she's "in" with Carol, then she's "out." It's dizzying, a perfect evocation of the swan-dive of love. In the film, there are multiple scenes where Therese is not present: Carol with her husband, talking with Abby, meetings with her lawyer. These may provide context for Carol's behavior but it also lessens the tension and creates confusion, since the majority of "Carol" is told so obviously from Therese's point of view that the camera is literally Therese's eye. Carol, ironically, is a stronger character when seen from a distance.
Blanchett is a naturally theatrical actress, unafraid of being "dramatic." Because of this, she sometimes seems out of place in a realistic context. But "Carol" plays to her strengths. "Performing" is how Carol gets through her life, so every gesture is a "bit": the way she lights a cigarette, or tosses her hair back, even the way she looks at Therese across the table. These are "acts," moments of assessment to make sure the coast is clear. When Carol does let down her guard, it's breathtaking because her surface is performed so flawlessly.
Rooney Mara is given less to work with, mainly because Nagy's adaptation has erased Therese's backstory. In the film, Therese is from nowhere, with no family. But Mara gives Therese complexity: watch for the contrast between who she is with Carol and who she is with her merry band of male friends. This is not just the story of a shy girl coming out of her shell. Therese already lives a life that has meaning to her. Mara's work is so touching when she shows how intimidated Therese is by Carol, how out-ranked Therese feels by this complex older woman.
In one scene, Therese sits in the back seat of a taxi, watching a man and a woman walk down the sidewalk holding hands. In 1964, Patricia Highsmith wrote the following in her journal:
It was no doubt a tragedy that I saw
"Forbidden" written like a word in red paint,
"Stop," and could read it, when I was six...
It's perhaps a tragedy I had to swallow my precious stone
At sixteen, watching careless boys and girls
Walking hand in hand down public streets,
As indifferent to what people thought of them
As they were to their own sensations...
Therese, as in love as that couple on the sidewalk, cannot hold hands with Carol in public, and does not expect to ever be free like that. It is one of the most poignant moments in "Carol" because of its telescope out into the universal.