Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a bored, young department store clerk graced with waifish good looks, forced against her will to don a Santa Claus hat by her termagant manager—clearly Therese does not radiate enough holiday cheer to get the second-bestselling dolls into the shopping bags of doubting mothers. But before the day dims behind a cloud of mercantile tedium, she espies from across the room an elegant and beautiful middle-aged woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Their eyes lock. Only a cruel god would keep them apart.
Rather, a cruel god or the laws and mores of America in the 1950s. With Carol, director Todd Haynes has crafted a ravishing film about two women from different classes and generations, who fall in love in one of the most repressive decades for homosexuals in America. On the surface, Carol resembles Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven, about a 1950s suburban housewife who, after discovering that her husband is a closeted homosexual, finds herself falling in love with their gardener, a handsome and kind man who also happens to be African-American. Both Carol and Far from Heaven explore the drama of stories about illicit love in an era known for its cultural and social prohibition.
But, for all there was to admire about Far from Heaven—and there was much—there was a chilliness to it that derived from the sense that Haynes was not just making his film, he was also making a Douglas Sirk film, or, as Roger Ebert put it, “The best and bravest movie of 1957.” There is in Far from Heaven a palpable distance between the story and its telling that renders the feelings being elicited as feelings that are being elicited.
Carol is more straightforward, more moving. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Carol is a swoon of a movie, the magnetism of Blanchett and Mara—the star power of each actress is on full display—drawing us deeply into Therese’s and Carol’s intense field of attraction for one another. Indeed, if their initial encounter at the department store was charged, it’s downright intoxicating at the martini lunch the women share shortly afterward, as Carol meets with Therese after leaving her gloves at the store, a clear ruse to have a reason to meet again with the young woman.
There is an urgency in the development of their relationship that Haynes associates with Highsmith’s crime writing. In an interview with Manohla Dargis, he observed, “As the one novel outside the crime milieu of Patricia Highsmith’s incredibly prolific career, [The Price of Salt] spoke directly to the criminal mentality in that sort of overheated hothouse of the amorous imagination that is always in a state of producing outcomes, run-ins, scenarios. What’s going to happen with the same kind of urgency and paranoia that the criminal mind weaves its webs. … And then, of course, the love itself is against the law, is a crime.”
That their love is criminal fuels the film’s tension. As Carol’s marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) disintegrates, he struggles desperately to hang onto it, using their young daughter Rindy as a weapon, threatening to keep Carol from seeing her as a way to keep Carol from leaving him, even if he has to stoop to accusations of moral turpitude to get his way. Of course in doing so, he only causes the women’s love for one another to grow more insistent as they struggle to resist the pull of their longing.
Adding to the film’s spell is Carter Burwell’s score, recalling the sensual pulse of Philip Glass’s film work, which provides the perfect undercurrent for the women’s implacable desire, and the gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, who has worked on all of Hayes’ films since the equally beautiful Far from Heaven. Lachman often frames the action of Carol through windows, refracting light, reflecting what lies outside them, clouded with rain or soot, capturing the way that perception is troubled, sometimes voluptuously so, when one is in the throes of love and desire. In fact, bracketing Therese’s and Carol’s romance are scenes in which the characters struggle to see the other through fogged or rain bedaubed windows, catching mere glimpses, first Therese seeing Carol, then later Carol, Therese. In those moments, they strain to see what the film brings to such luminous life for the rest of us.