A film review by Craig J. Koban February 20, 2016


2015, R, 118 mins.


Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet  /  Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird  /  Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard  /  Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird  /  Jake Lacy as Richard  /  Carrie Brownstein as Genevieve Cantrell  /  Cory Michael Smith as Tommy  /  John Magaro as Dannie  /  Kevin Crowley as Fred Haymes

Directed by Todd Haynes  /  Written by  Phyllis Nagy, based on the book THE PRICE OF SALT by Patricia Highsmith

Even though Todd Haynes' CAROL is set decades in the past, his thoroughly moving and touchingly performed period drama speaks to many modern truths about the manner that society imposes narrow-minded rules on certain individuals as to what’s acceptable and what’s not.  

It tells a story of a lesbian romance, but that simplistic descriptor doesn’t really adequately relay what the film is about.  Haynes is wise enough of a filmmaker to approach this material as a love story (regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple presented) first and foremost, but he uses that as a framework to tell the larger tale of how 1950’s cultural/social norms shunned gay relationships.  In many respects, CAROL is a crushingly sad portrait of people being forced to hide who they are behind closed doors, but it’s also uplifting for how it also evokes the courage of some women to accept their homosexuality and embrace it during a time when it was demonized as an abnormal psychological illness. 

CAROL is based on Patricia Highsmith’s romance novel THE PRICE OF SALT, released in 1952 and published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” (out of obvious fear due to the story’s lesbian romance contained within, something of which was seldom written about during the era, let alone openly discussed in public).  As a work of gay fiction, the book has been celebrated as a landmark and audacious achievement for its ahead-of-its-time handling of its subject matter.  It only seems logical that it would catch the attention of Haynes – a filmmaker best known for exploring the repressive sides of his characters and the harsh and critical worlds that they desperately try to inhabit.  Under a different and less astutely sensitive filmmaker, CAROL could have reached a level of tawdry melodrama, but Haynes' subtle and understated direction here allows for a more introspective approach to Highsmith’s underlining material.  He never judges these lesbians characters, but instead asks us to bare witness to them as they exist in the moment of their tumultuous times, and the fact that the film never feels ostensibly or condescendingly preachy is to its credit.   



CAROL opens with a gorgeously realized tracking shot, which breathlessly introduces us to the world of early 1950’s New York City with a near dreamlike aura and fascination.  We meet Carol (Cate Blanchett), an affluent, but recently divorced woman that’s enraptured in a vile custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).  For the most part, Carol is a headstrong woman, but deep down she’s unendingly lonely and desperate for human contact.  She locks eyes one day with a much younger department store worker Therese (Rooney Mara), a young girl trying to make it as a photographer in the Big Apple.  Even though she’s poised to be married to her boyfriend, Therese seems as emotionally lost as Carol.  When the pair meets while Therese helps Carol with the purchase of a gift for her daughter an ethereal chemistry develops between them.  When they part ways they simply can’t stop thinking of each other. 

In many respects, both women are feeling suffocated by their damaged relationships with men, which is arguably why they feel a strong sense of longing to be together.  Carol decides to ask Therese out for lunch as a thank-you for her assistance at the department store earlier, and upon this second meeting – and more afterwards – their mutual sexual attraction to the other grows by the day.  Carol’s miserable home life becomes more erratic when her husband wants to seek full custody of their children, citing Carol’s lesbianism as soul grounds for her unfit stature as a suitable maternal figure.  Overwhelmed by such legal woes, Carol decides to escape out of town on a cross-country road trip with Therese, who very easily decides to join in (despite the consternation of her flabbergasted husband-to-be).  As their long journey continues Carol and Therese grow even more intimate with each other, and within no time they act on their deeply repressed feelings. 

Shot immaculately on 16mm film (such a rarity these days) by Ed Lachman, the evocatively grainy, yet beautiful aesthetic sheen of CAROL looks positively sensational throughput.  Haynes doesn’t spend an awful amount of time lingering on his period specific production design (he plainly lets his camera inhabit it), but he nevertheless captures the rich textures and vibrant colors of yesteryear, creating a look and feel for 50’s era New York that compliments the dramatic underpinnings of the story without needlessly distracting from it.   Haynes has always had a deep appreciation and affinity for the past in his work, and CAROL is certainly no exception.  Within a scant few minutes into the film we become instantly transfixed in the world of this film and its times, which allows our full immersion in the main characters’ thorny emotional predicaments that they find themselves in later on.  The manner that CAROL is stunningly designed while not drawing needless attention to its artifice is rather noteworthy.   

Of course, the film lives and breathes by the inherent strengths of its two lead actors, and the always reliable and stalwart presence of Cate Blanchett does wonders at showcasing Carol’s authoritative and confident social presence while simultaneously revealing her to be a woman that’s mentally unraveling on the inside by the conformist pressures of her society.  The way Blanchett suggests a woman of limitless stern poise that has a softer and sensitive side proves what a supreme acting challenge it was for her.  Mara has, I think, the toughest acting challenge between the two, mostly because she has to play a meek and meager woman that has intimacy and trust issues, but then later achieves a stirring sense of self-actualization with her acknowledgement of her homosexuality and her attraction towards Carol…and all while facing insurmountable societal norms of the period.  Watching Mara’s quietly powerful performance here in direct comparison to her tenaciously daring work in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO cements her as a fiercely resolute young actress not swayed by subject matter or character types.  The rich variety of her performances is quite remarkable to witness. 

Some things, though, hold CAROL back from achieving greatness, like the fact that the film’s male characters are largely underwritten and somewhat one-note.  Harge, for example, is mostly presented as a petulantly childish hooligan that threatens Carol and her livelihood…mostly out of petty ignorance.  That’s not to say that this loathsome man deserves our pity in the film, but Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy don’t seem to take many chances in terms of asking audience members to identify or perhaps understand where his abhorrent behavior is coming from.  A few other characters, like Carol’s ex-lover (played resoundingly well by Sara Paulson) and Therese’s boyfriend (Jake Lacy) seem to be sprinkled into the narrative when it’s deemed necessary or convenient.  Therese as a character herself – despite Mara’s intoxicating performance – is curiously and oddly enigmatic in terms of backstory.  We really grow to learn relatively nothing about her family, where she came from, and so forth.  Maybe this was intentional from a storytelling perspective, but when compared directly to Carol, Therese feels somewhat undeveloped as a fully realized character. 

Still, as a deeply effective tale of repression, living with carefully guarded secrets, and muting one’s real burning desires in life, CAROL is undeniably engrossing.  It reminds viewers that in the not-too-distant past women were not giving the relative freedom of emerging from the lesbian closet with open and welcoming arms from society at large.  CAROL is an eerie evocation of how two people that yearn to be together learn how to be together, but grow to realize that their mutual courtship has an insurmountable number of barriers impeding their journey to happiness.  There’s a starkness by which Haynes presents this story of gay love that would have been next to impossible to pull off decades ago, let alone at the time Highsmith’s novel was written.  In many respects, CAROL champions its literary source material as the trail blazing and courageous work that it most certainly was…and as a love story (gay or straight) it’s as passionately rendered as any.   

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