A sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s sensational novel, but can Todd Haynes’ Carol bring new life to forgotten Fifties optimism?
The Great Beautyby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Adapted from the groundbreaking 1952 novel The Price Of Salt by a then anonymous Patricia Highsmith, Todd Haynes Carol is a rarity in queer cinema – neither basking in the mire of an impossible, unrequited love nor wallowing in the tragedy of a beautiful love cut short by death (A Single Man, ahem!) And it’s this optimism that queer love might be possible that made Highsmith’s novel so important way back then. But over sixty years on (and nearly twenty years in the making) is Carol still relevant to today’s young lovers? And for all of Todd Haynes’ luxuriant Fifties glamour and splendour, it remains a bygone age where women can be disenfranchised by their husbands with the threat of disgrace and the invoking of an immorality clause. So why is Carol so nostalgic for this painful past where same-sex love is outlawed?
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a small-town girl living in New York City. She might only work in the toy section of Frankenberg’s department store but she has big dreams of becoming a photographer. And besides, it’s how she meets glamorous mother Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) shopping for a Christmas present for her daughter Rindy. Therese already has a boyfriend, who already harbours dreams of travelling through Europe together. But while Therese can only ever bring herself to say no to Richard, to Carol she always says yes. And so after returning her forgotten leather gloves, Therese heads upstate to visit Carol, sneaks out during her lunch hour to devour spinach eggs with her over a dirty martini, and even embarks, when Carol’s soon to be ex-husband Harge slaps a restraining order on his wife preventing her from seeing their daughter, on a roadtrip across the United States in search of both love and herself.
While Carol ponders over the unforgettably mellifluous name of Therese Belivet, Carol is only ever Carol. No longer a father’s daughter nor husband’s wife, Carol is in search of something new – a world in which she can just be. Much like Blanchett’s Jasmine in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, she’s a fragile woman cast adrift on the flotsam of a male-run society – only here with her crimson clasp hats, Carol does her best to show she has everything under control. Cate Blanchett is of course wonderful as Carol, seething with elegance, desire and determination to have her cake and eat it. Yet despite the classic, but increasingly stultifying attire of crimson crepes, chignons and crinolines, Cate Blanchett, denuded in bed, manages to recapture a freshness not seen since her youthful dalliances with Robert Dudley in Shakhur Kapur’s Elizabeth. And yet she’s evenly matched by Rooney Mara’s taciturn Therese (which won her the Best Actress Award at Cannes), who, with her molelike approach to life, blusters around in the dark, looking for the dim light of a brighter future.
Like his gorgeous Sirkian melodrama Far From Heaven, Carol is a delightful recreation of all things Fifties – from Carol’s beautiful fashions and the nostalgic charms of a taffy candy-cane striped toy department to the Hopperesque cafe where Therese sits uncentred or the Marilyn Monroe inflections in her voice, recreating the era with every whispered Beat. But for all that, Carol remains a love story – true to the spirit of Highsmith’s novel, only with a proper primness that feels out of time with modern audiences. Haynes pans quickly away from their only lovemaking scene, and indeed doesn’t seem to be so interested in the queer experience of sexual identity or falling in love, but rather in the texture of it. And it’s a shame, because it leaves Carol as hollow as a beautiful Fabergé egg, which for all its clever references to films and photographers can’t muster the emotion of romance or the tragic consequences of their love.
Carol is a wonderfully optimistic tale of gay love. But it still comes at a cost – of motherhood and openness. And let’s not even worry about where the money’s coming from; the viability of their paradise isn’t important. What’s important is the personal and political significance of their love – as they dare to contravene societal expectation and become an example for the men and women of Manhattan fifteen years before Stonewall. It’s poignant but what Carol lacks, in comparison with Gus van Sant’s Milk say, is a contemporary clarion, its plea for the right for queer love to come out of the closet overshadowed by the change in attitudes sixty years hence. But more than just a brief encounter, Carol is still shockingly and disappointingly rare as a queer film with a happy ending. And while it plays on irrepressible themes of impossible love and gay tragedy, Carol finally corrects a film canon of endless queer villains and travesties, making the film now that could never have been made then and somehow placing it back in time. Quietly, unemotionally and ever so elegantly subversive.
Carol is released on 27th November 2015 in the UK/em>