It’s not like we get an overdose of “exquisite” at the movies anymore, which makes the new Todd Haynes-directed drama Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, something rare and especially worth celebrating. The elegant, absolutely assured film – which occasionally nods toward lovers-torn-apart classics like Brief Encounter, not to mention the films of Douglas Sirk – is based on The Price of Salt, the great Patricia Highsmith’s novel of “forbidden love” first published under a pseudonym in 1952.
Set in a lusciously recreated early ‘50s New York and poignantly scripted by Phyllis Nagy, Carol centers on Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an unhappily married suburbanite with an adored little daughter Rindy (Kk Heim) and a controlling husband (Kyle Chandler) she is in the process of divorcing. While holiday shopping in a Manhattan department store, Carol meets a lovely and keenly intelligent salesgirl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Their lives are changed from that moment on.
Carol is seductive and fatally glamorous. Therese, who has an unfulfilling relationship with a straight-arrow boyfriend, is vulnerable, searching, and willing. Carol compares Therese to a Martian “flung out of space.” Accidentally on purpose, Carol leaves her gloves atop the store counter. Therese returns them. They find a way to see each other again. From there, the deep-under-the-skin film follows their growing feelings toward each other and charts their intimate love affair under the constantly prying eyes of a repressive society that conspires to keep them apart.
Stunningly shot on 16mm by frequent Haynes collaborator Edward Lachman, the film displays a muted color scheme and grainy surface that makes it look at times like an indie, or even a home movie from the era. Unlike Haynes’ wonderful and much more floridly melodramatic Sirk tribute Far From Heaven, Carol is restrained and less grandiose verbally. It’s all about subtext — about things that couldn’t be stated overtly in the buttoned-down ‘50s and don’t need to be stated now.
Even with superb supporting performances by Chandler and Sarah Paulson (and a distracting Carrie Brownstein cameo), the movie is essentially a two-hander. In the hands of Cate Blanchett, who is wondrous and magnetic as always, and Rooney Mara, who has never been better or more touching, the movie becomes unforgettable. Tackling roles that, in a parallel universe, might have been played by Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn, they help make Carol a smart, wrenchingly emotional experience.