Todd Haynes’ Carol is a great way to end your movie year, or to start the new one. The movie works well on many levels, the most noteworthy of which is that Cate Blanchett’s role as the title character seems to have been written for her. It wasn’t – the movie is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt from 1952, but I couldn’t see anybody else in that role.
Although it’s Highsmith and somebody wields a gun, Carol is not a thriller, much less an erotic one; there is nudity, but none of these scenes define the movie. At its core, it’s about two people falling in love with each other. Highsmith seems to have used some autobiographical material. Of course, it’s significant that the movie takes place around Christmas 1952 in New York and New Jersey, but custody and visiting rights for Carol’s daughter are important, and yet not at the heart of the story. They have to hide their relationship from everyone, not just from Carol’s husband Harge. They can only be themselves alone together in a room. The odds are against them.
Blanchett can pull off drama and double-entendres with seeming ease, but it’s also the first movie where I really liked what Rooney Mara does with her role. Her Therese is standing there behind the counter at the toy department, figuring out what to do next. She has a boyfriend and an interest in photography; she is not trying to figure out who she is or what to do with her life – it’s just that with Carol, Therese is much less word-wise and experienced. Mara plays Therese Belivet with an astounding capability of being surprised at herself – at falling for Carol, at figuring out if her photos are good enough to be sold, and at feeling no small amount of guilt when she learns about Carol’s legal difficulties. Carol is married to Hargess Aird, played by Kyle Chandler, who only wants the best for his family, his daughter, and his wife. If only Carol could realize how much he loves her. She seemed happy before she started that nonsense with that other woman (Sarah Paulson). He still half thinks Carol might come around and see sense.
The movie is full of well-observed details: look at the way Carol smokes, the way she fiddles with the butt-end of her cigarette, and then look at the way Therese smokes. The light, the clothes, the cars, the people. Men patronising women. The movie starts like Lean’s Brief Encounter: someone inadvertedly interrupts a crucial meeting in which there is something going on that we cannot figure out yet. Then the movie tells us in flashback how they got there. The meeting will reoccur towards the end, and we will know what’s at stake.
The legal scenes are the only moments where the movie sinks into mediocrity: “If we go to court, it’s going to get ugly.” That line could be from a hundred movies. I don’t think that Highsmith wrote that line; the novel is told from Therese’s point of view, and the scenes involving the two women are the strongest parts in the movie. Seems to me that the added dialogues when Therese is not in the frame are the screenplay’s weak points. It also means that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are a match. The ending of the film, taken from the novel, is surprisingly optimistic, but it’s also the only ending that is fair to the two of them.