Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt provides the source material for Todd Hayne’s latest effort, Carol. Starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett Carol is a uniquely beautiful film, its simplicity and depiction of raw emotions are simultaneously of a filmic, intangible quality whilst feeling entirely real and utterly engaging.
Mara stars as Therese, a young woman who has little direction in her life. She is working as a shop assistant but harbours desires to become a photographer despite never having sold or even really shown any of her pictures. Her boyfriend, desperate to marry her, asks her to travel to Europe with him, but she shows little interest or desire to carry their relationship forward.
Working on the shop floor of the toy department during the busy Christmas period she notices the enigmatic blonde Carol (Blanchett) noting the toys for sale. Carol, asking for Therese’s advice on a purchase for her young daughter, leaves her gloves behind on Therese’s counter. After a dissatisfying night out with her beau and his friends Therese suddenly feels compelled to post Carol’s gloves back to her, setting into motion the narrative of the film. Carol, through curiosity and loneliness (she is currently suffering through a difficult divorce) invites Therese to lunch. The pair, both equally intrigued by the other continue to spend time together, before embarking on a trip at Carol’s behest. The trip, a means for Carol to spend some time away from the painful machinations of her estranged husband, propels the pair into increasing intimateness.
It is apparent that Carol has had a relationship with a woman before, and her past sexual relationship with best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) is the source of much consternation for her husband, who sees her attraction to women as immoral. We know less about Therese’s past, but there is, refreshingly, little time afforded to any moments of sexual revelations. Carol and Therese are simply two people attracted to one another, there is no real struggle with their sexual identity, although Carol is all too aware of the potential legal ramifications in relation to her divorce.
Stunningly shot on 16mm film stock, Haynes wonderfully recreates the era without ever really veering into nostalgia. There is an immediacy to the film, and Therese’s lack of direction feels entirely modern and relatable. Some have critiqued the emotional connection between the two women, and certainly whilst Haynes’ film is excellent at creating sexual tension, it is true that there seems to be less focus on their emotional connection. Yet, I would argue that this emotional connection is intrinsically linked to their sexual connection. Therese is utterly fascinated by Carol, as is Carol with Therese, and moments, such as Therese’s focus on Carol’s physical proximity to her whilst they are seated next to one another, demonstrates the way that these women have become linked to each other.
The script, beautifully measured in its simplicity, allows the audience to focus on the longing looks between the two women, bringing their connection to the film’s forefront. Other lesser films, lacking confidence in conveying the relationship through just direction and performance, would have filled the film with a cluttered scrip stating the obvious. Instead Phyllis Nagy’s script preserves lines from the book itself, but intelligently adapts the source material for the screen. Retaining the line for example, in which Carol refers to Therese a girl ‘flung out from space’, tells us everything we need to know about Carol’s growing curiosity without losing any sense of subtlety.
Mara and Blanchett are both sublime, but for me, Carol is Mara’s film. Her ability to convey emotion with a single facial adjustment is a masterclass in restrained acting, ensuring that the moments in which Therese loses control over her emotions are all the more affecting. Mara is quickly proving herself to be the most versatile of actresses, her restrained Therese entirely removed from her angry Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Perfectly paced, and suitability dramatic, Carol is an utterly beautiful film, its mood and impact stayed with me long after it had ended.