The story is simple. Carol details a relationship in the 1950s. In this case, between Carol Aird, an elegant society woman who resides in the upscale suburbs of New Jersey and a struggling young salesgirl named Therese Belivet who works in a Manhattan department store. Carol is going through a difficult divorce while trying to maintain custody of her child. In contrast, Therese, who is at least a decade younger, is on the precipice of a new life with her fiancé. This pair couldn’t be more different. In fact Carol is a reflection in contrasts. Certainly there’s the social disparity – that these women from two different worlds would seemingly have little in common. But then, more importantly, there’s the departure from what convention allows and from what their heart compels them to do. The narrative is a study in desire.
Initially, Carol’s chance encounter with Therese occurs while buying a gift in the toy department. What follows is a tastefully polite discussion that belies an attraction that is hinted at but not acknowledged, at least not immediately. The conversation ignites a spark that draws them ever closer. Cate Blanchett is beautifully vague at first. A refined creation with curved blonde hair styled in waves, bright red lips against her porcelain skin, wearing a scarlet dress and hat to match, ensconced in fur. Rooney Mara is waifish and shy. Doe-eyed and timid, her beauty suggests Audrey Hepburn in the face, but frostier in temperament. Perhaps the delicate visage of a young Jean Simmons exuding a curious intensity that hides a pain she cannot discuss. Given the two leads, the scene, as well as the entire film, is also a contemplation on etiquette between the mores of society and the amorous impulses that cause people to deviate from what is considered accepted behavior.
Carol is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) bestseller. The Price of Salt was the renowned author’s second publication. Although back in 1952, it was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan due to the book’s unconventional content. Sold in drugstores and mass-marketed as pulp fiction, it was priced at $0.25 and branded with the tagline “The novel of a love society forbids”. The idea was actually motivated by an incident in the author’s own life while working at Bloomingdale’s, a job that lasted a mere two weeks. The inspiration was real, the subsequent relationship however was a fabrication. Nearly forty years would pass before Patricia Highsmith would even admit to being the publication’s true author.
Todd Haynes’ sumptuous adaptation is a luxurious rumination that defines cinematic art. The director is truly in his element. This is very much a companion piece to his 2004 period drama Far From Heaven, a film that grafted a modern theme onto the kind of movies that Douglas Sirk made. What made those “women’s pictures” so evocative was the way they mined feeling as some sort of majestic gesture. Those grand, gorgeously expressive melodramas were ardent soap operas.
Carol is an exquisite drama that manages to capture a moment in time, not as it really was, but how we romanticize it to be. The polite nod, the gracious smile, the unspoken thought, all confirm a cultivated behavior that complements a rich visual tableau. Whether it be costumes so luxe, you can almost feel the fabric’s texture or a set design so vibrant, you believe you could step right into the frame, the display is presented with such incredible detail the screen positively bursts with the spirit of the age. Composer Carter Burwell’s score creates an elegiac mood with strings and woodwinds. Jazzy tunes of the era are peppered throughout. The whole experience is that you’ve actually unearthed some long lost work, rather than watching an idealized recreation. All of this would be for nothing if it didn’t have personalities to give the production life. Blanchett and Mara own the drama. They alone carry the thrust of the chronicle on their talented shoulders. The picture belongs to both of them. While they occasionally behave as if what they’re doing is no big deal — odd given the time period — they both captivate the viewer with their bewitching performances. The film positively aches with their emotion.