Giving into the charms of Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is kind of like falling asleep: you begin to slowly surrender, until you do so all at once.
The film concerns the relationship that develops between Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a young, naïve shop girl, and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a divorced society woman. They “meet-cute”: Carol goes to buy her daughter a doll from the department store Therese works at, but Therese convinces her to buy a train set for the girl instead. The two part, and that’s that— until Therese notices that Carol has (purposefully?) left her gloves on the counter and sends them to be returned at her house. Carol calls the store to invite Therese to lunch as a way of saying thank you, and their relationship begins. As it develops and changes, the relationship faces a major obstacle: Harge (a fantastic Kyle Chandler), Carol’s ex-husband who reveals himself to be still in love with her, is jealous and unaccepting of her affair and threatens to sue her for full custody of their daughter, on the basis of the “amorality” of her sexuality.
What follows is a detailed, multifaceted study of heartbreak that manages to be both universal and incredibly specific to the hidden, if not closeted, relationship of two women in a society that’s not quite ready to accept them. While the film has been criticized in some parts for its frigidity, it’s appropriate for a time when homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disease, one to be stowed away and stamped out.
On their first “date,” Carol is bemused by Therese’s inexpressiveness, stating that she is “flung out of space.” As Therese, Rooney Mara gives a marvelously specific, subtle performance, tracking the character’s growth throughout the story. Mara quietly shows the audience how Therese uses her seeming innocence as a façade to mask both her fears and her manipulative tendencies. Cate Blanchett’s performance, while not as internal, is no less important to the overall success of the film. Blanchett is both forceful and vulnerable in the role, Carol’s elegance contrasting greatly with Therese’s awkwardness. As Therese says, she no longer feels alone in crowds anymore.
It’s easy to appreciate the film merely on its own aesthetic terms. Made for a scant 12 million dollars, it overcomes its budget to wash the viewer in 1950s-era luxury and perfection; there’s not a frame of this glorious film that doesn’t seem purposeful and deeply felt. The cinematography, by the incredible Edward Lachman, constantly frames the characters through windows and doors or places household objects between them, as if it is the will of the society around them that is pushing them apart. Certain shots, even simple ones of a train moving in a circle, or of Therese standing alone under a street lamp, burst with poetry and beauty. This is the best-photographed film of the year. The luscious, hypnotic score by Carter Burwell hinges on an evocative recurring theme that reminds one of trance music. The images and sounds are so stirring that the film almost renders its dialogue superfluous; indeed, it’s what’s left unspoken—the lingering glances and the wordless finale in Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay, itself based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt”—that matters most.
According to playwright Anton Chekhov, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” With all due respect to Chekhov, this is a film that absolutely benefits from a gun that is never fired—a gun that only shoots blanks. Unlike almost all gay literature from the mid 20th century—in which gay characters were punished for their sexuality—“The Price of Salt” gained fame and notoriety not only for daring to allow its characters to live, but to live the lifestyles they had chosen for themselves. While society is undoubtedly more progressive today, much of popular literature and film has not moved past this idea of punishing its homosexual characters (see: “Brokeback Mountain”). “Carol” dares to imagine a future, if a slightly ambiguous one, for two women in love at a time when they’d have to give up their entire lives to be together: “Carol” imagines two women so in love they’d pay the price of salt.