In 1952, when Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” was first published, a lesbian romance was sufficiently shocking that the up and coming author of mainstream, psychological thrillers like “Strangers on a Train” published it under a pseudonym. That was then. In the modern, post-”Will and Grace” era, the concept is mundane. There is, however, nothing mundane about Todd Haynes’ movie adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” “Carol.” Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have not retained Highsmith’s original title, but they have retained the Eisenhower Era setting, and that is central to this remarkable movie’s considerable artistic success.
Rooney Mara flawlessly plays Therese, an aspiring photographer who works at an upscale Manhattan department store. There she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an elegant, quietly alluring older woman whom she’s instantly drawn to. The two exchange a few smoldering glances, but that’s all. Carol leaves her gloves on the counter – maybe intentionally, maybe not – which leads to an excuse to invite Therese to her house. After being given the grand tour, Therese has removed her shoes, but when Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler, in an excellent performance) unexpectedly arrives home, she hurriedly puts them back on. Nice girls in the fifties didn’t show their stockinged feet to strange gentlemen.
Carol’s marriage is disintegrating, and she has had a recent sexual relationship with a girlfriend. Needless to say, homosexuality is regarded in the film’s time period as both aberrant and morally repugnant, and likely to be a very big issue in a child custody dispute. (In fact, in an era where the “tender years” doctrine was regarded as judicially determinative, it probably trumped prostitution as a ground for awarding custody to a father over the mother.) Therese has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy), whom she doesn’t to want to have sex with, which has more to do with confusion over her own sexuality than a “nice girls don’t” moral sensibility.
Neither of the men in the respective main characters’ lives is actually a bad guy. Therese’s boyfriend professes to love her, as does Carol’s increasingly desperate husband. The movie sensibly doesn’t demonize either of them, portraying them instead as increasingly irrelevant to the women’s lives, collateral damage in the intertwined romantic triangles.
Much of the story takes place on an aimless road trip, on which Therese has impulsively accompanied Carol, who says she wants to get out of town while awaiting what’s promising to be a nasty divorce trial. Both seem to be leaving a lot behind – Therese’s boyfriend’s confusion is understandable even by modern standards, as she’s effectively ditching him for the holidays. She seems untroubled by this. In one of its infrequent lapses, the film doesn’t quite effectively explain Carol’s apparent lack of angst over not being able to see her daughter (played by Kennedy and Sadie Heim). The lack of maternal agony may simply be attributable to author Highsmith herself, who from all accounts took no particular interest in children or conventional domestic pleasures.
The plot is simple and straightforward – completely belying its far more complex subtexts. Nagy’s beautifully structured screenplay is subtle and nuanced, and supported by two fine actresses who deliver multilayered performances that often rely on faces more than dialogue. The best movie acting often takes place behind the eyes and that’s never been more apparent than in these two Oscar-worthy performances. The two women are separated not just by age, but by social class as well, a hurdle the performers clear without noticeable effort. The erotic tension between the two is palpable, and there is actual suspense as to if or when the characters will consummate their mutual attraction and deepening feelings for each other.
Haynes is remarkably analytical with ardour, though not in a chilly, Kubrickian manner. The screenplay is sparse with dialogue and sparser still with over the top dramatic flourishes. He and his go-to director of photography Ed Lachman are lavish with angles that would not be out of place in a film noir, shadow and color. Unconventionally shot in Super 16 mm, “Carol” achieves a realist look in muted, but deep, tones and hues.
Carter Burwell’s score grooves more deeply the current indie cliché of piano-intensive scores. Haynes’ direction is impeccable, even sensitive when the characters do finally bed. Romance is paramount. He isn’t above doing Ms. Mara’s makeup in a way that evokes a young Audrey Hepburn. Clearly he regards this first and foremost as a love story, not a tract on the cost of conservatism as illustrated by the fifties’ Red Scare, like Jay Roach’s “Trumbo,” also now in theaters. And he will have you rooting for a happy ending.
“Carol” opens in Capital District theaters later in December, 2015.