At times during Carol, Todd Hayne’s film of the Patricia Highsmith novel, Rooney Mara strikingly recalls Audrey Hepburn. She is captivating throughout and judged on celluloid charisma alone deserves a prize for being one of the very few who can outshine the impeccably beautiful Cate Blanchett on screen.
The aforementioned actors both deliver excellent performances; Phyllis Nagy’s script is skillfully sparse and witty (Nagy, a friend of Highsmith’s, has been trying to get the project made for some time); Ed Lachman’s cinematography is both gorgeous and melancholic, the perfect blend of Edward Hopper and William Eggleston, all kitsch-tinted Americana and rain-smeared Buick windows. It’s true, Carter Burwell’s score is rather drab, but mostly everything’s in place. Yet the movie dragged and at no point was I truly invested in the story.
Mara is great as Therese, an unusual girl stuck with a dull job in a Manhattan department store and an even duller fiancé; a girl who always feels alone in the crowd. She doesn’t seem to have considered an attraction to women until the older, very glamorous Carol Aird (Blanchett) comes into the shop to buy her daughter a Christmas present. It is love at first sight.
Complicated by her jealous husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) whom she is currently divorcing, Carol’s sexuality becomes a weapon of the ensuing legal manipulations that threaten the women’s hopes of happiness, which are potentially already slim in fifties America. But the stakes somehow never seem that high.
The second act is a rather endless road trip culminating in a sex scene that presumably we should have been breathlessly awaiting but which when it arrives feels remarkably flat. Highsmith’s original, published in 1952 under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt, cleverly structured the lesbian love story like the thrillers she would become famous for. But the film lacks the author’s control and psychological insight.
Maybe it’s the physics, as one character says to Therese when they’re talking about the mystery of attraction, and Mara and Blanchett just don’t have chemistry despite such good performances. More likely Haynes has relied on sumptuous period detail and the skill levels of cast and crew, rather than giving the story the taut structure and editing it required. Whatever the reason, this story of a forbidden all-consuming love trying to survive in conservative fifties society never really touches the heart.