Forbidden female love story unfolds in lush ‘Carol’
In the Golden Age of Hollywood—the 1940s and ’50s—there was a genre called the “woman’s picture.” These were melodramas in which one of a studio’s most formidable female stars played a woman in crisis, battling for her husband or her children, or to escape a poisonous marriage, or for the right to earn her own living. And no matter what the issue was, the woman risked severe social condemnation if she dared to go against the rules.
Contemporary filmmaker Todd Haynes has become the modern master of the form. His scrupulously crafted drama Carol has everything the genre requires. Set in 1950, it serves up two powerhouse female stars, luscious period clothes and cars, and a deluxe, sophisticated urban milieu in which the story plays out. But the issue is one that dared not speak its name back in the Golden Age—two women falling in love with each other.
In fact, the novel on which the film is based, The Price of Salt, was written in the ’50s by Patricia Highsmith, the famed thriller writer (Strangers On a Train; The Talented Mr. Ripley). Published under a pseudonym because of its controversial subject, and swiftly reprinted as a pulp lesbian paperback, the book was noteworthy in its era for not making its protagonists repent or renounce their so-called “crime.”
The story unfolds over a few weeks in December, 1950. Therese (Rooney Mara) is a young sales clerk selling toys in a ritzy Manhattan department store. A budding photographer, Therese has an Audrey Hepburn vibe, with her long bangs and enormous eyes, piquantly set off by the Santa hat all employees are required to wear during the holidays. She’s dazzled when glamorous, expensively maintained Carol (Cate Blanchett) comes into the toy department looking for a Christmas present for a little girl. Carol is impressed in turn when the salesgirl admits that when she was a child, she loved to play with trains.
After Carol leaves, Therese finds the older woman’s mauve kid gloves on the counter, sneaks a peek at the address on the sales receipt, and mails the gloves to her. Carol responds with a phone call of thanks and an invitation to lunch. Carol is beguiled by Therese’s youth and poise, while Therese is thrilled to be noticed by the sophisticated Carol. Theirs is a love story waiting to happen, handled with warmth, humor, and delicacy by Haynes.
But there’s a problem: Carol’s husband Harge (yes, “Harge”), played with stolid indignation by Kyle Chandler. Carol is in the process of divorcing him, which doesn’t set well with controlling Harge, who’s also a volatile drunk. “She’s still my wife!” he yelps. “She’s my responsibility!” (Men, as a species, aren’t portrayed with much sympathy here.)
Of course, there’s another problem: “respectable” women don’t have love affairs with each other in 1950. (They did, of course, but not openly.) When Harge realizes he can’t dominate Carol in any other way, he gets his lawyers to write an “immorality clause” into the divorce agreement. If Carol is perceived as taking undue interest in another woman, the court will grant full custody of their daughter to Harge—who will be within his rights to forbid Carol to ever see her beloved child again.
To get out of the city for a few days while the divorce is finalized, Carol invites Therese on a road trip to Chicago in her sleek Packard. They are not yet having a physical relationship; they’re in the early stages of exploring their friendship, and behave with absolute discretion in public. Yet the joy of discovering each other is shadowed at every step by the fear of being discovered by the forces of repression.
Although Carol has had a previous relationship with another woman, she is never painted as a predator. For all her innocence and inexperience, Therese is almost the more determined of the two, achingly open to the prospect of a new world she never knew existed that Carol represents. Even with elements of spying and enforced psychotherapy stirred into the mix, the story never feels lurid. And the choices each woman must make along the way are never any less than heroic.
*** (out of four)
With Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Written by Phyllis Nagy. Directed by Todd Haynes. A Weinstein release. Rated R. 118 minutes.
A TALE OF TWO LADIES Cate Blanchett co-stars in Todd Hayne’s brilliant ‘Carol,’ which tells the story of a love affair between two women in 1950’s New York.