Back in 1952, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt was considered a story that couldn’t be aired or shared easily: a forbidden book about a forbidden love, it emerged only after its author had adopted a pseudonym. Well, things change. In 2015, Todd Haynes can happily sign his own name to Carol, an adaptation that – with no strain, and no small amount of grace – brings the love between two women out into the softest, most flattering winter light, and transforms what was once considered sordid or deviant into a beautiful, many-splendored thing.
It is as much a romance of objects as it is of people; it’s telling that the initial meet-cute should take place in a department store. It’s here where, in her fluster to order a Christmas present for her daughter, unhappily married socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) leaves a glove behind on the counter of wide-eyed shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). With this Cinderella gesture, these two are united: the woman of the world and the impressionable young thing.
With her hairband and uniform, Mara does indeed look fresh from the seminary, and what follows proves as much education as romance. The film’s first half, heavily weighted towards the Leica-touting Therese’s POV, carries us along on the thrill of a girl’s first major love. Haynes’ camera gazes with wonder at Blanchett, wrapped in Sandy Powell furs and presented as the best present a gal could want: a confidante with supreme self-confidence, an easy way with a cigarette and a cocktail glass, and a snow-dusted house with gifts under the tree.
Yet the most sophisticated gambit in Phyllis Nagy’s fine script – the approach that allows the film to temper adoring innocence with some degree of experience – is to dot this initial courtship with scenes that show Carol alone, and barely holding it together. As divorce proceedings get nastier, the film hints how taking cocktails at four in the afternoon can be a sign of incipient alcoholism as well as sophistication; it keeps reminding us that anything picked up in a department store can be returned within thirty days.
If we come to share Therese’s uncertainty, it’s because we’re never entirely certain what she is to her older lover. A rebound fling? A schoolgirl fantasy? The means to recapturing a lost youth? The trick Haynes pulls off is to show us the mismatch between the images we compose of loved ones in our mind’s eye, and the reality standing in front of us – while allowing just enough lovestruck rapture to permeate each frame for the viewer (and, indeed, the lover) to go along for the ride. Carol could make hopeful romantics of even the most jaded among us.
This very particular tension sustains much of the second half, as Carol and Therese set out for the country as Christmas approaches: two outlaws on the run, bringing us into more familiar Highsmith territory. We’re left to wonder who, if anyone, will get hurt – for the pain Haynes inscribed into 2002’s Far From Heaven surely lurks around the next bend – and what, if anything, this pair will have to get back to as the New Year rolls around.
Even here, though, Haynes deals in pleasure; the sensitivity of adaptation extends to an exemplary attention to craft. Ed Lachman’s cinematography adds an acid candy-cane twist to every Norman Rockwell tableaux; Carter Burwell’s score, the lovechild of Philip Glass and Danny Elfman, strands us, along with these characters, between deadening order and possible fairytale; Judy Becker’s production design and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction deck out each motel with curtains you want to draw, and bedlinen you want to wrap yourself in.
Nothing is forced; everything is of a piece and a place and a time, as it would be in an especially vivid formative memory, whatever the outcome. The result is a rare movie romance that evinces the best kind of love: the kind that creeps up on you, quietly steals your heart and then – at the right moment, with no more than a simple glance – lights you up.
(MovieMail, November 2015)
Carol screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1.55am.