A period-set romantic drama with a pleasant festive aesthetic in the former half of its runtime, 2015’s Carol is based on the novel; The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Powered by the fantastic performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the lead roles, Carol is a well-told and engrossing tale of forbidden love between two women that lives up to its cherished source material. Thanks in part to its elegant production design and magnificent original score by Carter Burwell.
Plot Summary: During the Christmas season of 1952, aspiring photographer, Therese Belivet, encounters Carol Aird whilst working at a boutique store in Manhattan. Semi-divorced and entrapped in a loveless relationship with her former husband, Carol quickly sparks a connection with Therese over their shared romantic hardships. Yet, amidst the strict social norms of their time, their undisguised interest in one another soon turns into profound affection…
The original novel the film is based upon was actually inspired by a blonde woman in a mink coat who ordered a doll from Patricia Highsmith when she was working as a temporary salesgirl at Bloomingdale’s in New York City during the 1948 Christmas season. Highsmith recalled feeling; “Odd and Swimmy in the Head, Near to Fainting. Yet, at the Same Time, Uplifted.” Highsmith completed the outline for the story in about two hours that same night. Moreover, the character of Carol Aird was inspired by Virginia Kent Catherwood, a Philadelphia socialite six years older than Patricia Highsmith, with whom the author had a love affair in the 1940s. Catherwood subsequently lost custody of her daughter after her homosexuality was used against her with a taped recording of a lesbian liaison she had in a hotel room. Director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far from Heaven, I’m Not There) sufficiently employs all these ideas into a grander narrative in his adaptation, primarily concentrating on the senseless consequences of a lesbian relationship in a time when they were strongly frowned upon.
When it comes to the cast, the pairing of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is superb, with Blanchett portraying the thirty-two-year-old, Carol Aird, as a woman chafing against the constraints of her role as an upper-class wife and mother, continually expressing her sexual desires for women as a method of rebelling against her husband and her conformist world. While Mara’s performance as nineteen-year-old, Therese Belivet, is more suppressed, depicting the quiet young woman as a self-deprecating, novice photographer who prefers to hide behind her camera than engage with others. Softly spoken and sweet-natured, Therese is as single-minded in her relationship with her boyfriend as she is in her pursued career. As such, it’s easy to see why the pair bond, given that they provide a sense of escapism for each other, and upon their first meeting, the sexual tension between them is palpable.
Although the cinematography by Edward Lachman is doubtful to blow any audience member away with its framing or use of colour, Carol still features a number of visually interesting shots that occasionally even illustrate what the characters are feeling. For instance, in the opening shot, we see an iron floor grille from which the camera slowly pulls out, visually representing the entrapment that Carol and Therese feel at the beginning of the narrative. Another intriguing attribute in regard to the visuals is that Carol was shot on Super-16 millimetre film to better resemble the look of photographic film from the late 1940s/early 1950s. Many of the shots are also directly influenced by the photojournalism of Vivian Maier, Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt and Esther Bubley, respectively.
Moving onto the original score, through orchestral tracks like Opening, Datebook, Christmas Trees and Waterloo, the score by Carter Burwell consistently sounds wrapped in a gauze of wistful minimalism, with the leading duo being audibly identified by two instrumental markers; Carol by piano and Therese by woodwinds. In addition to the wonderful original score, Carol makes terrific use of songs from the time period. In fact, prior to the start of production, Todd Haynes compiled a playlist of seventy-nine songs that were popular during the era the story is set within to further understand the period. A few of the songs that were ultimately chosen for the film include; One Mint Julep, Easy Living and Smoke Rings.
From start to finish, the production design of Carol is also outstanding, capturing the polish and aristocratic nature of the ’50s without seeming excessive. This praise can be applied to all parts of the production, but, most notably, the costume design. What makes the costume design even more spectacular is that excluding the suit Therese wears in her first and last scene(s), all of Rooney Mara’s costumes were actually well-worn, vintage clothing pieces.
In summary, whilst Carol isn’t one of the finest romantic dramas ever made, it is still a tremendous flick in more ways than one. While the pacing is sometimes too slow for its own good, and the original score occasionally does a lot of the heavy lifting during the more emotionally impactful moments, Carol is an indelible and captivating story, all the same. On top of that, even though many may see Carol as a rather strange choice for a Christmas viewing. I feel the joyous, snowy aesthetic that the film presents during its first half is enough to make the flick a reliable, less whimsical pick for the festive season. Rating: low 7/10.