‘Carol” is a wondrously beautiful piece of filmmaking by American director Todd Haynes. Set in New York during the 1950s — when homosexuality was viewed as a disease on par with leprosy — the film reminds us of the incredible freedom allowed in romantic relationships these days.
“Carol” tells the story of a passionate affair between department store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) and older socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is in the midst of a messy divorce. In order to be together, the pair must pretend they’re just casual friends hanging out, despite the difference in age and social status. The chemistry between Mara and Blanchett is palpable — Carol is the practiced seductress, but Therese has impetuous youth as an advantage. Together, they create an on-screen relationship that combines the thrills of a clandestine affair with the subtle power struggle of two lovers vying for each others attention and adoration. This isn’t so much a lesbian love story (for lack of a better description) but a tale about two people who are consumed by an enormous need to be together. They just both happen to be women. The way Mara and Blanchett lock gazes across a crowded room is worth the ticket price alone.
Haynes has a flair for depicting women trapped in the seemingly “perfect” marriage. His groundbreaking 2002 film, “Far From Heaven,” showed Julianne Moore playing an affluent suburban housewife grappling with the realities of her husband’s homosexuality. And in the 1995 drama “Safe,” Moore — again playing a suburban homemaker — suddenly becomes hypersensitive to chemicals.
“Carol” plunges into the deep end of the pool, tracing the intricate and highly charged eroticism shared by two women. The film is secretive but highly voyeuristic: It’s impossible to sit through the two-hour runtime without feeling like a heavy-footed intruder violating a paradisal garden — even if you’re a woman. The men may find this unbearable.
The male characters in “Carol” seem slapdash and flimsy at best, oafish and manipulative at worst, and there’s not much in-between. Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) comes off as the stereotypical ’50s American businessman who makes no attempt to understand his wife, only demanding her decorative presence at company functions and home parties. Therese’s boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), is just an ordinary fella who wants her to live with him and can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Therese may have other interests besides working behind a counter and making his meals.
Neither Harge or Richard could hope to compete with Therese and Carol’s stimulating conversations, courage to pursue their sexual identities and depth of emotion. If this is Haynes’ way of reversing the mirror to show how Hollywood has reveled in portraying female stereotypes, he certainly succeeds. All the same, it’s a little unfair on the guys.
“Carol” is based on the 1952 romance novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, who, according to the biography by Andrew Wilson, was a depressive with a very low opinion of family. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy has kept Highsmith’s tone of suspicion and stifling mistrust that surrounds Carol’s marriage. She paints a picture of ’50s America, which sought to trap women in conventional relationships, big houses and family life.
But “Carol” is truly romantic and has a lovely ending. “The Price of Salt” is that rare Highsmith story where the characters have plenty of scope to find themselves and seek joy. We’ve seen this story a thousand times between men and women, but the brilliance of “Carol” is the way Haynes welds together something so familiar with a premise that feels spanking adventurous, and transports us to another world where love has no other goal but the continuity of passion (as opposed to marriage and stability).
Two people meet and fall passionately in love. In a perfect world, all lovers would leave it at that.