Directed by Todd Haynes | Written by Phyllis Nagy, adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt | 118 min. | ▲▲▲▲△
I’ve enjoyed Haynes’ work since I went to see Safe one day in 1995 in a largely empty cinema in Toronto and felt a chill I’ve rarely experienced at the movies, a uniquely unsettled feeling I couldn’t quite get my head around. Since then he’s made a number of interesting films, including Far From Heaven, which, of all his movies, Carol most resembles.
Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a 1950s upper class New York dame, mother to a little girl, in an unhappy marriage to a fella named Harge (Kyle Chandler). They’re getting divorced, but the particulars are still being discussed. At Christmas, Carol’s shopping in one of the big department stores in Manhattan where she shares a moment with a quiet shopgirl, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). It’s the start of a friendship and subsequent love affair that takes them out of the city on a mid-movie road trip, mimicking the structure and some of the wintry look of the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, while going in a very different direction tonally.
A same-sex romance set in an especially repressive decade of American history suggests a film heavy with tragedy, but what works well in Carol are the plot’s unexpected forking paths, the paired leads scouring for hope despite their circumstances. They couldn’t be more different—Carol, a stylishly arch ’50s lady, a Lauren Bacall type, while the younger, fresher Therese feels as if she’s years ahead, very much channeling Audrey Hepburn’s Funny Face era wardrobe and elfin-ity. How they navigate the challenges of gender and identity, managing the expectations of the many entitled men in their lives, while grasping for a little personal happiness is the emotional core of the story.
Haynes chose to shoot his film in 16mm, making for a low-contrast, grainy picture, refreshingly indie given it’s set at a time that often brings with it bright pastels and primaries—see last week’s Brooklyn, for example. While I admired much of Haynes’ formal aesthetics, a wonderful symphony of close-ups on lips, wrists and cigarette smoke, all scored by Carter Burwell, there were times when I was taken out of the film by heavy-handed motifs: Mara gazing through or reflected in wet glass is a little overdone, and there’s a moment with the introduction of a gun where Carol unadvisedly looks to become a thriller, though that thread is quickly dropped.
But even if this movie had been a two-hour single conversation called My Dinner With Carol, it would still be compelling thanks to the central performances. Blanchett and especially Mara are totally engaging. As they gaze longingly at each other, the two hours fly by.
Carol opens Friday, December 18, 2015 in Halifax