Thursday 19 September 2019

Carol film review: A slow-moving masterpiece

Todd Haynes' fine drama is a love story with a twist

Unmissable: Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in 'Carol'
Unmissable: Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in 'Carol'
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

At the start of Todd Haynes' intoxicatingly evocative drama Carol, a young man strides into the bar of a ritzy Manhattan hotel, salutes the barman and orders a drink. It's the early 1950s, he's sporting a fedora and long overcoat, and looks around restlessly as though in search of action. Then he spots someone he knows, a slight, pretty girl who's having tea with a glamorous older woman. When he goes over to say hello, the woman rises to leave, and rests a parting hand on the girl's shoulder. That gesture speaks volumes, and if this scene feels like the end of something rather than the beginning, that's because it is.


Mr Haynes' film is based on a 1952 novel called The Price of Salt, which was written under a pseudonym by Patricia Highsmith, and drew on her own experiences to create a daringly frank account of a lesbian love affair. Miss Highsmith, who went on to write the Ripley novels and become a celebrated and insightful psychological novelist, was notorious in later life for her cantankerousness: she preferred snails to people, and once brought 100 of them on a head of lettuce to a London cocktail party in her handbag, describing them as her "companions for the evening".

She was dismissed by many who met her as a cruel misanthropist, but this story is full of understanding as well as insight, and the marriage of minds between Highsmith and Haynes turns out to be a perfect one.

Beautifully filmed and masterfully paced, Carol is at once an exploration of the hidden lives of 1950s homosexuals, and a minutely observed love story. Above all, it explores the mechanics and perils of sexual attraction, and the divine madness of being in love.

Rooney Mara is Therese Belivet, a quiet but self-possessed young woman who works on the toy floor of an upmarket Manhattan department store. It's almost Christmas, and Therese is watching the world from beneath the brim of a garish Santa hat when she spots a handsome and beautifully dressed woman hesitating over a train set.

Meaningful looks are exchanged, and when Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) comes to Therese's counter to buy the toy, she leaves behind her leather gloves.

She does so on purpose, a calculating act by a character whose sly courting of the younger woman could be seen as predatory, but as Carol progresses it becomes abundantly clear that Therese is no passive victim. She's marking time at the department store, and hopes to become a magazine photographer. And though several earnest young men are pursuing her, she's elusive, non-committal - until Carol comes along.

Carol is married, but this is not her first rodeo so to speak, and her husband (Kyle Chandler) is still sore about a long affair she had with a woman called Abby (Sarah Paulson), who hovers in the wings. They are in the process of divorcing, and Carol is taking a big risk in becoming involved with another woman, because any whiff of scandal could hamper her chances of keeping custody of her young daughter.

But passion's passion, and when she and Therese embark on an ill-advised road trip, the hormones start to fizz.

Dressed in furs and sleek dresses, Ms Blanchett recalls the glamour of Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, and is a Hollywood goddess sprung to life. At first she seems the assured and wily one, Therese the rabbit in her headlamps. The girl might look elfin, almost childlike, but has a resolve and quiet maturity that Carol lacks. Therese knows what she's getting involved in, and the huge risks her forbidden love entails, but is ready for the fight - more ready, it turns out, than Carol is.

Blanchett and Mara deliver performances of real power and veracity, and Haynes lushly renders the sights and sounds of 1950s America, throwing a kind of grainy sheen over his haunting story, which afterwards feels like something you dreamed.

Carol (15A, 119mins) 5 stars

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