Movie Review: Carol

Patricia Highsmith's romance novel by gets a glossy film treatment

Directed by Todd Haynes
With Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson

Lesbian themes were rarely written about in the 1950s, and never addressed in mainstream films. Director Todd Haynes turns back the clock again in Carol, making another film that looks as if it had been in a time capsule.

The script is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who is better known for mysteries such as Strangers on a Train, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951, and The Talented Mr Ripley, filmed in 1960 and 1999.

Her novel Carol, originally published as The Price of Salt, was a departure for her, and for LGBT literature of the time in general.

The film Carol is told as a straightforward love story between two women from different classes who meet in New York City in the 1950s. The older and more experienced one, Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett) is from a wealthy family and is married with a young daughter.

During the Christmas shopping season she encounters a young store clerk named Therese Belivet (Mara Rooney) and they start to socialize, while at the same time Carol's marriage is headed to divorce.

Therese, by the way, claims to have Czech roots but there is little reference to it beyond that her father changed the family name.

The romance plays out with Therese slowly discovering her feelings for another woman and trying to cope with them. She has several male suitors, but always puts them off for lack of interest. Quite frankly, her main male suitor is a bit of a boor who is rather too impressed with himself.

Director Haynes has tackled gay themes in the 1950s before in the 2002 film Far From Heaven, an overwrought melodrama where Dennis Quaid secretly goes to gay bars and eventually winds up in therapy to cure him, as was the practice at the time.

In Carol, the depiction of LGBT themes is not nearly so dark. There is some mention of psychotherapy, but just in passing. The character Carol is more confident with herself and more willing to accept who she is.

Therese struggles a bit with her feelings, but the script by Phyllis Nagy avoids preachy scenes, refreshingly treating the topic more like a standard romantic plot than something shocking. The words gay and lesbian are avoided, though during the divorce some mention of morality is made.

As with Far From Heaven, the re-creation of the 1950s and the look of 1950s films is top notch. Cate Blanchett comes across as a mix of Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall, dressed often in a mink coat (despite more modern notions against fur fashions).

Rooney Mara, with her dark bangs, recalls Audrey Hepburn at her perkiest, although her character Therese seems a bit dazed much of the time. It's not that she isn't clever, she just is in her own world. As the film goes on she actually shows she has a lot of artistic talent and manages to get a much better job than her original one as a shop assistant.

The story doesn't completely throw mystery thriller elements aside, and there is some drama and melodrama as the two women embark on a road trip.

Even in a departure from her typical novels, author Highsmith produces a compelling plot.

The film has a muted color scheme reminiscent of the films of the 1950s, and the costumes, haircuts and other technical details are faultless. One thing that is noticeable is the cars. While the ones we see are all from the correct era, at times there are not enough of them. Likewise with extras — at times the streets are a bit too barren of people.

But these are minor quibbles with a film that otherwise paints a compelling look at LGBT issues in the 1950s.

The film in the end though, does not come off as a specialized LGBT romance, but simply as the story of two people who meet. The performances as well as the script succeed in creating believable characters in a credible setting, without labeling them.

Novelist Highsmith herself was a lesbian although this was not widely known in the 1950s when her fame was at its height. The novel The Price of Salt was first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

The novel was in part autobiographical, as Highsmith worked in a department store where she encountered an older blond woman in mink coat.

The novel remained relatively obscure until 1990 when it was republished.

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