With gorgeous craftsmanship, an insightful slow-burn of a love story, and inspired casting, director Todd Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy have achieved the rarest of things, an adaptation of a classic novel that surpasses its source, itself now a classic staple of feminist and lesbian literature. Written in the early ‘50s under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was revolutionary in that it never presented homosexuality as something to be psychologised. Whilst Todd Haynes’ Carol is deprived of that vital context, it’s more emotionally involving than the book, distilling the essence of the story into a film so rich and sumptuous that the atmosphere and tensions are practically tangible. Incredibly, this is the first film script by Phyllis Nagy, a piece of writing with the assured confidence and skill of a veteran, delivered by the immensely powerful duo of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
It’s Christmas 1952, and Therese Belivet (Mara) is working on the toy floor of a lavish department store. When the soon to be divorced Carol Aird (Blanchett) arrives to pick up a present for her daughter, there’s an instant connection between the two, and Carol accidentally on purpose leaves her gloves on Therese’s counter. Upon their safe return, Carol takes Therese out for lunch as thanks and they so begin a tremendously affecting courtship. The second act is almost a road movie, with Carol and Therese taking a post-Christmas trip out west, away from prying and judgmental eyes.
Nagy is far from reverent to the original text, and most of her changes actually improve the story. These range from the minor, such as Therese being a photographer in the film instead of a set designer, to the major, such as the characters’ ages and the extra focus on Carol’s life. Both lead characters are about ten years older in the adaptation, and whilst some of Therese’s traits play better coming from a 19 year old, you couldn’t imagine any other actors in these roles. No longer confined to just Therese’s point of view, Haynes and Nagy show us the decline of Carol’s home life through her desperate, drained eyes. A custody hearing between Carol and her cruel and oafish husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is absolutely exhausting in the best possible way, and is just one of many such sequences.
Therese is one of the year’s most effective audience surrogates, as well as being a fully realised character in the film’s world. Her giggly nervousness during her first encounters with Carol is infectious and the whole audience I saw the film with felt her newfound confidence after consummating their relationship as almost their own. Any threats to Carol and Therese as a couple, and there are plenty, feel like personal affronts to the viewer. Without any hyperbole, I can say it’s easily the most involving love story of 2015.
Cate Blanchett is phenomenal as Carol, her confident subtlety by turns stirring and heartbreaking. It’s perhaps even better than her Oscar-winning work in Blue Jasmine, and she should undoubtedly be a Lead Actress frontrunner. There isn’t one single ‘for the awards’ scene, but instead a flawlessly judged emotional journey throughout the entire film. Mara is not quite on the same level, but her style of performance matches Therese’s character excellently. The first lunch they share is not quite awkward, but it’s not comfortable either, and a more overtly confident actor would feel out of place. As Therese finds her feet, so does Mara, and this slow self-discovery works in stark contrast to the consistent regal magnetism of Blanchett.
Even in the dead of winter, with New York frozen over and the fields of the Midwest barren, Haynes and DoP Edward Lachman find a way to fill shots with warmth and life. Storefronts glow, and it seems as if every background character has their own story to tell. Period detail is everywhere, everything about the design and costumes deliberate. Carol is the kind of film that invites repeat viewings; there’s so much to see in every scene that you’re bound to miss something on the first go. If there’s one criticism I have of Carol, and it’s a very small one, it’s that it can feel like it’s keeping you at an arms’ length. Even with the involving characters, the immaculate detail and deeply cinematic style, it can feel unreal – the film’s weakest scene is perhaps its most conventional ‘movie moment’. However, for the most part this is the perfect choice. The world of Carol is like a perfectly preserved slice of the ‘50s, and we don’t need to be invited in to appreciate the artistry.
Carol is bookended by two takes on the same scene – a pivotal exchange over tea. We first see it through the eyes of a blundering acquaintance of Therese’s, hearing nothing until he intrudes into the conversation. By the end, once we’ve seen exactly what he’s interrupting, it’s impossible not to hate the man. What could have ended as a victory is cut short before it has the chance. Haynes and Nagy don’t deem it necessary to give us complete closure, but the hopeful notes dotted all around the last act give the audience something to hold on to. This is a film that places a lot of faith in its viewer’s intelligence and perceptiveness, a gamble that pays off in spades.