The love that dare not speak its name is explored with wonderful sensitivity by Cate Blanchett andRooney Mara in Carol, the latest period drama by acclaimed director Todd Haynes.
Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), the story is centred on the blossoming relationship between two women in Fifties USA. Although the category of lesbian romance would be an obvious one to associate with the film,Carol is not about overt labels or LGBT activism, instead it is a deeply moving tale of same-sex love at a time when such ‘inclinations’ or ‘tendencies’ were deemed obscene.
Mara plays Therese Belivet, an unassuming 20-something with a temp job in the toy section of a New York department store over the busy Christmas period. Out of the blue, her attention is caught by an older, coolly glamorous lady who is distractedly searching for a present. When both make eye contact across the room, there is an immediate undercurrent of attraction. The elegant socialite introduces herself as Carol Aird (Blanchett) and is persuaded by Therese to purchase a train set rather than a doll for her daughter. She requests the item to be delivered and gives her address. When she leaves, Therese spots Carol’s gloves on the counter – left intentionally or by accident? – and decides to return them via post. The kind gesture results in a lunch invitation and soon the pair find themselves meeting regularly in Manhattan or Carol’s comfortable New Jersey home.
It emerges that Carol is separated and on the verge of getting divorced from her caring but misguided husband (a strong supporting turn by Kyle Chandler). He is angry about his wife’s past affair with her best friend Abby (the always subtle and effective Sarah Paulson) and is reluctant to let go completely. However, when Carol refuses any reconciliation, he turns bitter and threatens to file for sole custody of their child. Desperate for some peace of mind, Carol decides to take a road trip and asks Therese to join her. The solitude and close quarters gently tease out whatever (forbidden) feelings Carol and Therese have for each other.
In lesser hands, Carol could have slipped into melodrama – luckily screenwriter Phyllis Nagy smartly chose to amplify the nuances and unspoken moments that are present in the book. The dialogue is simple but volumes are communicated through fleeting glances and touches. Like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, the thrill and ache of longing are clear to audiences without clunky conversations. Still, the pace is a little too leisurely in the first half and could do with a slight jolt.
Carol and Therese’s courtship is portrayed with exquisite tenderness by Blanchett and Mara. The actresses masterfully carry the film and prove to be well-matched co-leads. Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects), who resembles a young Audrey Hepburn or Jean Simmons, brings a stillness and curiosity to Therese – the shopgirl/amateur photographer entering uncharted territory, willing to abandon her steady boyfriend and follow her heart. Two-time Oscar-winner Blanchett is superb as Carol, the seemingly buttoned-up housewife daring to fall in love again. She is simultaneously brave and nervous, alluring and aloof.
Director Haynes is now a pro at tackling personal stories in post-WW2 America. He reunites with cinematographer Ed Lachman (Far from Heaven, HBO’s Mildred Pierce mini-series) to create an immersive experience of this conservative, pre-Eisenhower era. The colour palette is subdued, more Edward Hopper than garish Technicolor. Costume designer Sandy Powell (The Aviator, The Young Victoria,Cinderella) deserves a special shout out too for her gorgeous outfits, particularly Carol’s luxurious fur coat.
Since Carol is not concerned with gratuitous sex scenes, its content may be considered quite tame, especially after 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. Yet the film is quietly groundbreaking and what is shocking is that Nagy’s screenplay took more than a decade to be made.
Carol screened at the London Film Festival and is due to open in UK cinemas on 27 November.