In “Carol,” Todd Haynes’ adaptation of “The Price of Salt,”
Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian novel written in 1952, its two main characters, Therese Belivet, a budding photographer trapped in a dreary department-store sales job, and Carol Aird, a cultured suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce, are often seen through windows.
These are women behind glass, cut off from their natural instincts. They are women, immaculately turned out and “pretty” in that era’s fashion, who nevertheless carry an aura of quiet desperation.
They gaze out, often through those windows, at what is denied them, at a person they want to talk to, get to know and perhaps fall in love with. Only they can’t.
In this way Haynes, who in a sense is making a companion piece to his celebrated “Far From Heaven” (2002), a story of male homosexual repression in that same ‘50s era, has perfectly captured the aching longing that society would deny.
Only “Far From Heaven” had a certain Technicolor gloss, a Douglas Sirk romanticism to it, that “Carol” deliberately lacks. In this film, the Manhattan shops, bars, restaurants and flats have a cloistered, oppressive feel to them. They look like slightly soiled places only gussied up for the camera.
Especially that department store with its deadened decor and beady-eyed managerial staff watching employees’ every move. Even Therese’s request for a pencil with which to take down an address is met with an exasperated frown.
You surely will guess by now but “Carol” doesn’t mean to be a movie of surprises but rather a study in attitudes. Movies often get congratulated for getting period details right but “Carol” not only does so it also gets the period attitudes down to a T — a late tea in the afternoon as it happens.
The postwar era has never been captured better than in this film: that placid, smoothed-over exterior, energized by postwar optimism but also sterile and stifling and repressive.
A telling moment comes when Therese arrives for work during the Christmas season and finds a middle-aged worker handing to each employee a red-and-white Santa hat “compliments of the management.” These are to be worn while at duty stations on the floor whether the employee wants to or not. One must look cheerful, after all.
These period attitudes crop up within all the peripheral characters — Carol’s husband Harge (what a perfect name!), who knows exactly how his home life should be but his wife cannot conform; Therese’s boyfriend Richard, unable to understand why an offer of marriage even before “going all the way” is not greeted as a great gift; Carol’s best girlfriend Abby, much more in tune with her desires and identity so sympathetic to her friend’s confusions; even a private eye who sees blackmail as nothing personal but rather commendable professionalism.
Despite this aura of repressed desires and stifling conformity, or perhaps because of it, “Carol” is a great romantic movie. Much of this owes to Haynes’ astute casting.
Cate Blanchett in her second outstanding performance in as many months is the alluring Carol while Rooney Mara, now established as one of our best young film actresses, captures the deer-in-the-headlights nervous uncertainty of Therese Belivet.
There is a considerable age difference between these two women, one that is never remarked upon but rather felt in Carol’s gentle seduction of the young salesgirl from the “accidental” leaving behind her patent leather gloves at her sales counter to a midday lunch with a dry martini to the frenzied bid for freedom that is their impulsive cross-country Christmas getaway from New York to the Midwest.
As compulsive, driven and ruthlessly honest as Blanchett was as Mary Mapes in “Truth,” here she is outwardly calm, a bit sad and the height of sophistication as Carol. Even when she falls apart she does so inside; she betrays nothing on the surface.
Mara is doe-eyed and timid as Therese yet willing if pushed to put her foot down and assert herself. In the course of this movie, Therese does make progress in her vague life goals by getting a job in the New York Times photography department, she does shed that unwanted boyfriend and she does discover her true self.
The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (Emmy nominated for “Mrs. Harris”) is highly economical in its tight construction yet open for telling moments to resonate. She maintains the essentials of the Highsmith novel while providing Haynes with juicy scenes to work leisurely through, letting character emerge from small details and the actors’ art.
As with any Haynes film, production is meticulous with Cincinnati, Ohio, ably standing in for New York and New Jersey circa 1952 and longtime colleague, cinematographer Ed Lachman (“Far From Heaven,” HBO’s “Mildred Pierce”), shooting in 16mm, which emulates that era’s 35mm.
Sandy Power’s costumes capture character and attitude to a fare-thee-well while production designer Judy Becker emphasizes off colors to give everything a slightly doughy look. Carter Burwell’s marvelous score contains not only period tunes but a Philip Glass quality in its melodic repetitive structures.
Highsmith’s story, published originally under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, has echoes from her own life, in an affair she had with a well-heeled socialite from Philadelphia who, like Carol, lost custody of her child after secret recordings were made of her in a hotel room with another woman.
Highsmith, of course, is known more for suspense and crime novels and Haynes is aware of this. So there is in the sleek surfaces, meticulous details and frequent use of window through which to spy people (shades of “Rear Window”) a sense of the ominous lurking nearby.
No crime gets committed in “Carol” — although, of course, homosexuality was a crime in 1952 — but the film leaves an indelible impression of what it is like to have to slip into shadows, away from windows and mirrors, to experience true passion.
Opens: November 20, 2015 (The Weinstein Company)
Production companies: Number 9 Films, Killer Films in association with Film4, Goldcrest Films and Dirty Films
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Phyllis Nagy
Based on the novel by: Patricia Highsmith
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon
Executive producers: Teresa Ross, Dorothy Berwin, Thorsten Schumacher, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Danny Perkins, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, Robert Jolliffe
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designer: Judy Becker
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
R rating, 118 minutes