With his groundbreaking examinations of queer identity and his fondness for the heyday of classic melodrama, Todd Haynes seemed almost too perfect a choice to film an adaptation of “The Price of Salt,” Patricia Highsmith’s ahead-of-its-time 1952 novel about two women who boldly defied the stifling social conformity of the era. Still, even high expectations don’t quite prepare you for the startling impact of “Carol,” an exquisitely drawn, deeply felt love story that teases out every shadow and nuance of its characters’ inner lives with supreme intelligence, breathtaking poise and filmmaking craft of the most sophisticated yet accessible order. An obvious companion piece to Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” and “Mildred Pierce,” and no less painstaking in its intricate re-creation of a mid-20th-century American milieu, the Weinstein Co. drama (set for a Dec. 18 release) should have little trouble translating critical plaudits, especially for Cate Blanchett’s incandescent lead performance, into significant year-end attention.
As a rare prestige picture centered around a homosexual relationship set during a much less tolerant era, “Carol” stands to generate perhaps an even warmer audience embrace than “Brokeback Mountain” did 10 years earlier, hopefully absent much of the snickering embarrassment that soured the otherwise widespread acclaim for Ang Lee’s classic. The obvious differences between the two films go beyond the mere fact that “Carol” centers around two women in an urbane ’50s New York setting; unlike “Brokeback,” Haynes’ film is not framed as tragedy. (To preserve the purity of the experience, read no further.) Remaining largely faithful to Highsmith’s ending, which thrilled and shocked readers at the time with its suggestion that forbidden desires need not be forever sublimated to the status quo, “Carol” ends on a triumphant note of emotional clarity that, for all its frozen-in-time period restraint, speaks stirringly and unmistakably to the present moment. It’s a thoroughly modern movie skillfully disguised, at least up to a point, as a Production Code-era artifact.
Deviating from the novel early on with a prologue set apparently long after the two central characters have become involved, Phyllis Nagy’s expertly condensed screenplay flashes back to a moment just before their fateful first meeting. A projection-booth glimpse of “Sunset Blvd.” and a proliferation of Santa hats set the scene as Christmas 1950. Quiet, mousy young Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) leads a drab, seemingly ordinary existence, holding down a temporary job in the doll section at a Manhattan department store. (As always, Haynes works wonders with dolls.) Into this world of soulless, manufactured luxury and overflowing display cases (realized to perfection by ace production designer Judy Becker) steps Carol Aird (Blanchett), an elegant socialite who’s looking for a Christmas gift to buy for her young daughter, Rindy (played by Sadie and Kennedy Heim).
The moment when Therese first sets eyes on this perfectly coiffed creature is a classic, unadorned love-at-first-sight moment, and after their brief transaction, Carol absent-mindedly leaves her gloves on the counter, giving Therese the excuse she needs to secure a second meeting. The almost subterranean delicacy of Haynes’ direction is on full display when the two women have lunch at a nearby restaurant, in a sequence where Blanchett’s soft, husky voice and Mara’s cool yet vulnerable one seem to faintly caress each other, their every anxious pause and upward/downward glance larded with unspoken desire. One of the film’s more remarkable achievements is that, despite their obvious differences in class and background, Therese and Carol seem to ease themselves (and the audience) so quickly and naturally into a bond that they have no interest in defining, or even really discussing — a choice that works not only for an era when their love dared not speak its name, but also for Haynes’ faith in the power of the medium to achieve an eloquence beyond words.
Shooting on Super 16 — and finding, as ever, a precise and idiosyncratic cinematic language that will best convey their story’s meaning — Haynes and his regular d.p., Ed Lachman, achieve a realist look and texture that’s worlds away from the lustrous sheen and pristine Technicolor surfaces of “Far From Heaven.” Absent any need for Sirkian quote marks, the less brightly stylized images in “Carol” more closely resemble those of “Mildred Pierce,” but the palette here seems even more deliberately muted — all dingy greens and nicotine browns, bathed in noirish shadows that seem to provide a cover under which the characters can at last reveal their true selves. Frequently filming his heroines through half-concealed doorways and rain-pelted windows, and employing medium and long shots as well as closeups, Haynes uses these obscuring, distancing visual devices with an unerring sense of thematic purpose, slowly pulling us into a veiled world where scandalous truths are hidden in plain sight, and only a privileged (or cursed) few can see them clearly.
Those individuals, pointedly, include almost none of the men in “Carol” — not Richard (Jake Lacy), the nice, clueless young suitor who expects the indifferent Therese to marry him, and certainly not Carol’s soon-to-be-ex husband, Harge (a terrific Kyle Chandler), who’s desperately trying to salvage their marriage even though he knows all too well the nature of his wife’s desires. While Harge urges her to join him and Rindy at his parents’ home for the holidays — not the last time he will exploit his daughter for the purposes of emotional blackmail — Carol opts to spend Christmas with Therese instead and proposes a road trip. During this blissful getaway, marked by shared hotel suites and hours behind the wheel, the two women will at once cement their bond — in a scene of frank, unabashed eroticism and tenderness that shatters the movie’s patina of restraint — and then see it cruelly torn away from them.
While “The Price of Salt” isn’t a work of crime fiction (the presence of a gun in Carol’s suitcase notwithstanding), its final stretch is as replete with undercurrents of suspense and violence as any of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, and Nagy’s adaptation allows the machinations to play out to ever more absorbing effect. Elsewhere, the scribe makes smart adjustments to the text, such as having Therese aspire to a career in photography (rather than set design), her black-and-white practice shots of Carol adding yet another pointed visual layer to Haynes’ aesthetic of desire. Notably streamlined here is the role of Carol’s best friend and former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson, superb), whose delightfully bitchy confrontations with Therese in the novel have been largely omitted here; still, like every other element, Abby’s presence snaps into the larger construct with gemlike precision.
Mara is as no less mesmerizing here than she was in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (in which she played a woman far less reserved about her nontraditional sexual appetites), and she seems born to the role of someone who seems at once knowing and naive, guarded yet unafraid to pursue what she really wants in life. Some of the film’s most moving moments find Mara simply peering out at the great nocturnal expanse of Manhattan — nicely played by Cincinnati locations, and shot, at times, in an almost Wong Kar-wai-esque neon blur — while Carter Burwell’s haunting score, with its two-step progressions and occasional repetitions, seems an almost perfect distillation of her longing.
Yet “Carol” ultimately belongs to Blanchett, and rightly so. Not for nothing did the filmmakers opt to go with the other title under which “The Price of Salt” is sometimes published; whereas the novel was told from Therese’s point of view, the film offers a more balanced dual perspective, allowing us an unfiltered and hugely sympathetic glimpse into Carol’s world of smothering decorum and forced family cheer. As searing as Blanchett was in her Oscar-winning turn in “Blue Jasmine,” she arguably achieves something even deeper here by acting in a much quieter, more underplayed register. Looking a vision in Sandy Powell’s costumes (the color red is wielded with particular expertise), Blanchett fully inhabits the role of a woman who turns out to be much tougher and wiser than those luxurious outer garments would suggest. As a study in the way beautiful surfaces can simultaneously conceal and expose deeper meanings, the actress’s performance represents an all-too-fitting centerpiece for this magnificently realized movie.