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Outstanding performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as two women precariously charting a path toward a romantic relationship in 1952, make something special out of Carol, Todd Haynes’ fastidious, intelligent and somewhat leisurely adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s then-daring 1952 novel The Price of Salt. In many ways a companion piece to the director’s Far From Heaven, which also examined the pressures of living a sexual double life in post-World War II America, the new film is absorbing and beautifully crafted but also a bit studied; you long to feel some blood in its veins. This Weinstein Company release will be a strong specialized title for the fall season.
Highsmith’s second novel (after Strangers on a Train), published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, was something of a sensation in gay and lesbian literary circles due to its “happy” — or at least open — ending in an era when transgressive sexual relationships were normally punished as the story concluded. The smartly judged screenplay by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris) retains the essential dynamics of the novel while usefully changing the younger woman’s professional interest to photography rather than theater art direction and telescoping the long cross-country road trip that occupies much of the book’s second half.
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Set over the Christmas/New Year holiday period in 1952-53, just before the Eisenhower era began, this is a love story that is pursued — cautiously and judiciously, to be sure — through very uncertain and dangerous waters. Working in an upscale Manhattan department store, the young, Audrey Hepburn-ish Therese Belivet (Mara) makes an impression on immaculately accoutered customer Carol Aird (Blanchett), who, intentionally or not, leaves her gloves behind, providing an excuse for further contact.
Carol comes in from her castle-like New Jersey home to meet for lunch — nothing like eggs, a martini and lot of cigarettes at noon — and there’s clearly an attraction, certainly on Carol’s part, and some sort of curiosity on Therese’s. The latter, who’s awfully cute and has an unsettled, go-along-type personality, scarcely lacks for male attention. Though, unlike in the novel, she hasn’t consummated anything sexually yet despite the strong interest of a couple of eager suitors.
Haynes, continuing with ace cinematographer Ed Lachman very much in the style they employed on their previous earlier 20th century period pieces, Far From Heaven and HBO’s Mildred Pierce, favors tight compositions that focus first and foremost on his gorgeous leading ladies. But he also highlight all the details of Judy Becker’s production design and Sandy Powell’s mid-century costumes, which are worn to splendid effect, especially by Blanchett. Dressed up Cincinnatti locations double reasonably, if not entirely satisfactorily, for New York City.
Therese soon learns the difficult details of Carol’s existence: Her successful businessman husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) wants a divorce and threatens to take their young daughter with him, hanging over his wife’s head her long-since finished affair with her best friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson). The slightest misstep by Carol with Therese would no doubt mean Carol’s total loss of not only any custody, but even visitation rights with her daughter.
But the laws of attraction and the lure of a great love cannot be denied, and with Harge off with their daughter, Carol proposes a car trip west to Therese, who readily agrees. It takes a full hour for the film to get to this point, which feels a bit too long, but it’s more a matter of pacing than of the clutter of unnecessary scenes. Even though the women know what’s going to happen on the trip, the inevitable is delayed until they get, of all places, to Waterloo, Iowa (Carol makes a good joke about this).
The Big Scene is adroitly and tastefully done, with a careful measure of nudity for the two stars and stopping short of anything really down and dirty. But the mood quickly changes as the long arm of the law has pursued the women so as to threaten Carol with cruel and unusual punishment for her transgression.
Blanchett makes an indelible impression as a woman who, through breeding, intense personal cultivation and social expectations, has brilliantly mastered the skill of navigating through life, but to ultimately disastrous effect on her husband, child and her own satisfaction. It has all, of course, been a charade, and what is impressive is that Carol has the strength to even try to change course after so many years.
The roughly half-as-old Therese is unformed clay, which makes her largely a reactive character most of the way. But Mara really comes into her own in the story’s latter stages as, without overt melodrama, Therese realizes what she wants. Thanks largely to how Mara shapes her characterization in the home stretch, the final, dialogue-free scene is a knockout.
Supporting performances are solid, and Carter Burwell’s effectively supportive score is fleshed out with an album’s worth of period tunes.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: Autumn 2015 (The Weinstein Company)
Production: Karlsen/Woolley/Number 9 Films, Killer Films
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Carrie Brownstein, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriter: Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon
Executive producers: Teresa Ross, Dorothy Berwin, Thorsten Schumacher, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Danny Perkins, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, Robert Jolliffe
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Music: Carter Burwell
Casting: Laura Rosenthal
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