Todd Haynes’ Cannes favourite Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt – starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as star-crossed lesbian lovers – is a beautifully nuanced 50s-set love affair that deservedly jumps straight to the front of the awards season queue.
A shy department-store clerk, Therese (Mara), catches the eye of the well-spoken shopper, Carol (Blanchett), whilst the latter is out hunting, rather cluelessly, for her daughter’s Christmas present.
Their first meeting is hardly unusual: a helpful shop assistant helping a confused customer on the latest gift ideas, but a forgotten glove – whether left purposely or not – ignites the beginning of blisteringly addictive relationship.
Innocent restaurant rendezvous become an escapist trip away for two whilst the mother-of-one looks to get away from the increasingly ugly custody battle over her only daughter, Rindy (KK Heim/Saide Heim) – the aftermath of which leads to a wonderfully shaped will-they-won’t-they finale.
Mara’s Therese – a wannabe photographer with a kind-of boyfriend ready to slap a ring on her finger – appears conflicted and confused. “I don’t know what I want,” she declares – a misty sense of insecurity plagues her life; unknowing, or unwilling, to admit what she really wants.
Carol, meanwhile, played purposefully by a fabulous Cate Blanchett, knows perfectly well who she is and wants she wants. “Who am I to her [Rindy] when I live against my own grain?” she asks angrily in a film-stealing court room sequence involving her ticked-off, soon-to-be-ex-husband, Harge (played by Kyle Chandler), after her keeping-up-appearances routine as a happy, heterosexual mother could be sustained no more.
Reminiscent in style of a 50s fairy tale, accompanied by an ear-pricking soundtrack from Carter Burwell which perfectly – in period-defining fashion – dictates the film’s tempo, Haynes’ feature is a sombre masterpiece woven together through the majestic use of sound and imagery.
Sexy but tender – there’s no filth, nor sleaze; it’s all in an awkward glance or a brush of a shoulder. It’s a stylish old-school romance, set in a wonderfully atmospheric Christmassy New York where you can almost feel the cold winter chill glistening off of the screen.
Yet this goes deeper than a typical love story; the film shrewdly explores homosexuality in 50s America. Carol’s supposedly immoral behaviour is used against her in a court of law; being gay – as an invoked ‘morality clause’ in her daughter’s custody case implied – was more than just frowned up.
Dealt with in hushed tones and abruptly finished conversations, Carol’s dealings with homosexuality captured the sad mentality of the era – yet managed to stay clear of turning this spectacle into an unnecessary civil rights crusade, focusing on what’s truly important: a captivating romance between two people caught in a whirlwind.
Both Mara and Blanchett, with their contrasting, yet equally as compelling displays, will win the plaudits – and rightly so. Yet Haynes’ direction and a wonderfully adapted script from Phyllis Nagy capture the spirt of the times, as well as encapsulating a beautiful love affair in what is an awe-inspiring cinematic treat.