Therese (Rooney Mara) is a quiet young woman who lands a job working in the toy section of an upscale Manhattan department store for the holidays. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy mother and wife who needs a Christmas present for her daughter. Their eyes lock across the bustling crowd of shoppers — the sort of moment you’ve seen a million times before in movies. But the small hairs on your neck tingle anyway and you smile with recognition: Here, rendered beautifully and simply, is that most peculiar sensation of love at first sight.
The tingling continues through the rest of Carol, director Todd Haynes’ glittering adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s scandalous 1952 novel The Price of Salt, about a furtive love affair between two women. The movie, shot in lovely, grainy 16mm by cinematographer Ed Lachman, is so elegantly staged you can practically smell the characters’ perfume. Haynes’ direction is methodical and precise without being fussy or oppressive. Every detail has been weighed and considered. When Carol orders creamed spinach and poached eggs with a dry martini for lunch, the choice reveals as much about her elegance and confidence as it does about her taste in food. The film is as much of a sensory experience as it is an emotional one.
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Carol seems so fully formed that Therese, who has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) because it’s the thing a woman her age is expected to have, can’t help but be drawn to her. “I want to ask you things, but I’m not sure that you want that,” Therese says, confused about what she’s feeling. “Ask me things. Please,” Carol replies, eager to talk about stuff she rarely gets to talk about.
The conservative mores of the era weigh heavily on Carol (Highsmith originally published her novel under a pseudonym). As her estranged and frustrated husband, Kyle Chandler lets us know this is not Carol’s first time at the rodeo. “I put nothing past women like you, Carol,” he says when he starts to suspect she might be carrying on with her young new friend. “You married a woman like me,” she shoots back. Burn.
The words “gay” or “lesbian” are never uttered in Carol, but they don’t need to be. The movie is more about the unpredictability of attraction, and why some people connect while others don’t, than it is about sex or labels (although sex, or the lack thereof, plays a critical role in the film’s suspense). Haynes often places the characters in the edges of the frame, surrounded by empty space or separated from other people by windows or frames. If loneliness is the basic human condition, then true, mutual love — for those lucky enough to experience it — cannot, will not be denied.
Carol has already been described as a lesbian take on Brokeback Mountain, but that reading is reductive and misguided. Brokeback Mountain was as much about the definition of masculinity and its importance in cowboy culture as it was about two men reeling from an unexpected and inexplicable attraction. It was a love story rendered as implacable, heartbreaking tragedy. The protagonists of Carol never doubt how they feel about each other, and the societal pressures they face are not founded on shame or ridicule but on the impact their affair will have on those dearest to them. This is a story about the most immutable force in nature and all the delirious highs and lows it imparts. Carol argues that yes, love hurts. But oh, it hurts so good.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Kyle Chandler.
Director: Todd Haynes.
Screenwriter: Phyllis Nagy. Based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 118 minutes. Brief vulgar language, explicit sex, nudity, strong adult themes. Opens Dec. 25 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Aventura, Sunset Place, South Beach; in Palm Beach: Parisian, Palace, Shadowood.