The news that director Todd Haynes was filming a 1950s-set love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara set many pulses racing.
After all, this is the same man who’d helmed the lush, female-centric period dramas Mildred Pierce and Far From Heaven. But if you’re expecting more of the same here, then you may be in for a surprise. Haynes has never been a predictable film-maker, so though he returns to what may seem like familiar territory, he delivers what is possibly his best work to date: an intelligent film full of grace and beauty, anchored by bewitching lead performances by Blanchett and Mara.
Based on the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol concerns Therese Belivet (Mara), a young department store worker who has a chance encounter with the more mature, glamorous housewife of the title (Blanchett) while she shops for Christmas gifts for her young daughter. Some flirtatious chat and a misplaced pair of gloves later, and the two are reconnecting over lunch in a dimly lit restaurant, all meaningful glances and careful confidences.
But wordly, sophisticated Carol is not as put-together behind closed doors: her marriage has fallen apart and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is all-too aware of her lesbian predilections. It makes sense that she’s drawn to youthful, innocent Therese as the prospect of a Christmas away from her daughter looms: but the separation may be more permanent as her husband’s jealousy turns litigious and the relationship between Carol and Therese is threatened.
For much of the film, Carol remains a mystery, even to herself: Haynes emphasises this by often shooting her with her back to us, or through misty windows and just out of sight on the side of the frame. As the film progresses and the relationship between the two women becomes intimate, Therese joins Carol on the other side of the glass. This being the early 1950s, their relationship is utterly secret and must take place in a private, interior world. Haynes invites us in, and many of the film’s comedic moments come from us being in on the joke: take, for instance, the utter disregard which the women treat an oblivious salesman who tries to flirt with them.
While many of Haynes’ fans may be hoping for a picture-perfect, sweeping melodrama, Carol avoids many of the familiar clichés that mid-century set queer dramas often fall into. Blanchett does finally get a barnburner of a scene in a lawyer’s office towards the end of the film, but generally the urge to kick and punch and scream at the oppressiveness that surrounds the characters is resisted throughout.
The opportunity to see the film on 32mm in a special screening at Picturehouse Central was a delight, as shooting on Super 16 mm gives the film a grainy, richly textured look – “like shooting through a nicotine haze”, said Haynes at a Q+A session after the showing. Cinematographer Edward Lachman won the Golden Frog for Best Cinematography at the Camerimage Festival, and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t take home the Academy Award too.
While it looks absolutely stunning, Carol has a rather muted colour palette and adheres more closely to the true run-down greyness of post-war New York City. The city of 2015 proved impossible to shoot in, so filming instead took place in Cincinnati – a city in a time capsule, according to Haynes, who spoke of referring closely to an image book to create the look of Carol. Photographers such as Saul Leitner and Esther Bubley provided reference points for every department, from art direction to costuming and indeed the actors themselves. The supporting cast, which includes Sarah Paulson and Jake Lacy, are also top-notch, and even the non-union extras that populate the film seem to have stepped right out of Haynes’ image book.
Aided by Sandy Powell’s costumes, and hair and make-up with the finest attention to detail, Blanchett and Rooney truly look like they’re from the 1950s. Their intelligent, sensitive performances lend the film a rich, fiery inner life, even in its moments of stillness and chilly distance.
Carol is the romantic drama that Audrey Hepburn and Joan Crawford never got to make. It may not be quite what you’re expecting, but it will certainly leave you utterly bewitched.