SOME PEOPLE CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER.
In 1952, Patricia Highsmith was known as a mystery writer, having written a now-classic novel called “Strangers on a Train”, which had been filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. Her fans expected crime fiction, which is partly why Highsmith’s next novel was released under a pseudonym – and by a different publisher. A few years earlier, before her breakthrough, Highsmith was working as a clerk at a department store. One day, she was watching a blonde woman shopping there and became so inspired that she started writing immediately. When “The Price of Salt” (by Claire Morgan) was published, it depicted a love story between two women.
Shortly after the election of Dwight Eisenhower as U.S. president, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is working as a salesgirl in the toy department of a big Manhattan store when she’s approached by Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). She’s buying a model train set for her daughter as a Christmas gift, but accidentally leaves her gloves on the counter. Therese mails her the gloves, and Carol takes her out to lunch as a way of saying thank you. Carol is divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler); smitten by Therese, she invites her home one evening, but Harge suddenly barges in and immediately realizes that something is probably going on between the two women.
The problem with Carol’s affairs with women is that she might lose custody of her daughter…
The right people have been chosen
Highsmith revealed much of herself in the novel. Sensationally marketed in 1953 as “The novel of a love society forbids”, there was a lot of earnestness to the story – this is what the judicial system did to homosexuals and it shouldn’t be accepted. The right people have been chosen to transfer the novel to the silver screen. After films and television projects like Far from Heaven (2002) and Mildred Pierce (2011), Todd Haynes seemed like the obvious choice to direct, a man with an eye for old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama without turning it into mere kitsch; Phyllis Nagy, a British writer and theater director who was friends with Highsmith, had worked on a script since the 1990s.
Blanchett was attached to the project early on and is a natural choice to play Carol, a beautifully magnificent performance that is very touching. Costume designer Sandy Powell gives this character an elegant sense of dignity in striking outfits. Mara matches Blanchett well, as the salesgirl who falls for the attractive housewife; they are brilliantly supported by Chandler and Sarah Paulson who make their smaller roles very relatable and memorable. As I was watching this film, I pondered what aspect of it was the most interesting. The homosexuality? Playing out between an older woman and a less experienced girl, it’s a classic, riveting story but doesn’t offer anything new, perhaps, as far as gay fiction goes. The depiction of 1950s society? Much is made of the Eisenhower era and its period details, as an effective contrast to the kind of life that Carol and Therese would like to live.
But what really moves us in the audience is how sensitively the filmmakers, including cinematographer Edward Lachman, portray the love between the main characters (the melancholy of Christmas gives it special poignance), and the heartache that constitutes the divorce and sad actions that Harge takes.
In real life, Highsmith had several flings with women but it never seemed to work out; in her later years, alcohol and racism poisoned her mind. But “The Price of Salt” and Carol will always be there, as examples of a gay love affair with that rarest of qualities – a happy end.
Carol 2015-U.S.-Britain. 118 min. Color. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Tessa Ross, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley. Directed by Todd Haynes. Screenplay: Phyllis Nagy. Novel: Patricia Highsmith (“The Price of Salt”). Cinematography: Edward Lachman. Music: Carter Burwell. Costume Design: Sandy Powell. Cast: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith.
Trivia: Mia Wasikowska was allegedly considered for the part of Therese.
Cannes: Best Actress (Mara).
Last word: “[Blanchett and Mara] are similar in lots of ways. They come well prepared, are attentive to detail, conscientious, hardest on themselves, and kind to the people working with them. But the fact that they didn’t know each other, and that we also spent a lot of time shooting them apart – we see Therese’s world, and then Carol’s, before we ever see them together – supported the differences between their two characters: differences not only of class and age, but of knowledge. It’s a gulf, and you need to feel it. The fact that they weren’t hanging out on set together every day probably helped that.” (Haynes, The Guardian)