There’s a point in Todd Haynes’ Carol where Therese (Rooney Mara) finds a handgun underneath the titular Carol’s (Cate Blanchett) neatly folded sweaters within her suitcase. How we get there isn’t relevant, but that we get there and back without ever discussing (or resorting to legitimately putting to use) this firearm is as deliberate a choice as anything in Haynes’ elegant, melancholic, and charming adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s controversial early novel “The Price of Salt.” In Highsmith’s book, the gun matters. It’s a pulp yarn that – though certain transgressions would have it otherwise – moves at a clip and relies on conventions then, and still, reliable. Haynes’ film doesn’t do that. It’s at once a faithful adaptation of Highsmith’s work – yet not to a fault, as was his sprawling attempt at adapting James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” prior to this – and a decidedly different approach to telling it. In Carol, the gun is as essential as the magnificently over-the-top fur coat that Carol herself is adorned with. Which is to say that it is, and it isn’t. Both offer an aesthetic thrill, the promise of something outlandish yet refined. And in Todd Haynes’ film, being refined is outlandish.
Carol opens with a careful, long lasting, tracking shot of recreated 1950s New York City. Starting with an extreme close up of a sidewalk grate – which the bold, blue titles emerge over – and slowly tracing the street and moving skyward. The attention to detail is announced and gorgeously rendered via cinematographer Edward Lachman’s use of Super 16mm with thick grain that captures all of the glowing lights of the city and bounces them all over the place. It has a sheen that should be immediately recognizable for anyone familiar with the Haynes/Lachman pairing on Far From Heaven and – in an increasingly stagnant, digital focused industry – is currently without peer.
Highsmith’s novel takes place around Christmas time, using the holiday as a catalyst for the chance encounter of our two leads. Haynes’ film does the same and fully embraces the tropes of the holiday, with shop workers wearing Santa hats and the glitz of Christmas lights shimmering in the city and out of it. The tone in which it starts is so jovial that one could even mistake it for an updated, American set Shop Around the Corner, but then all of the adultery happens. Highsmith’s novel was controversial at its time of publication due to the happiness that results of the adulterous lesbian relationship at the center of its story, and Haynes’ film mirrors that in most ways even if the resolution is quite different. The courting and seduction of Therese by Carol is impressively subtle – this isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey – and the scene that would’ve likely caused some worn out VHS tape 20 years ago, is simple and non-exploitative. Haynes’ film is at its best when its at its most quiet; shots of Therese and Carol intertwined in bed; scenes where Therese takes and develops photographs; Haynes’ penchant for close-ups of faces doing nearly nothing. When it finally gets bogged down in attempting to be faithful to the source, and that gun is brought into play, it fortunately sides with brevity, reducing long sections of Highsmith’s book that detail surveillance, betrayal and subsequent violence (or at least threats of violence) to a rapid chain of fleeting moments that quickly return us to what we came for in the first place: Carol.
Haynes was smart to opt for a different title to his film – which is also the title that Highsmith’s book would later be published under – for one, nobody knows the true significance of the title “The Price of Salt” though there are Biblical quotes in the book in reference to “salt of the earth” and, let’s face it, we are all watching this for Cate Blanchett. And she’s magnificent. As is Rooney Mara. I never once doubted their devotion to each other, which isn’t an easy feat for characters who are betraying others they’re committed to and just met. The supporting cast is solid too with Kyle Chandler playing Carol’s husband, Sarah Paulson as her best friend/former lover and an amusing appearance by Carrie Brownstein. But it belongs to Blanchett and Mara who own each frame they’re in and especially those that they share. It’s the best acting work that Haynes has put to screen since Safe.
Carol is ultimately what we have come to expect from Todd Haynes at this point. It’s sparse yet gorgeous, features two impeccable performances, and adapts a good source into a great film. The transgressions of Highsmith’s novel feel a bit muted now, but that’s for the best. If we were still getting shocked by two women falling in love, we’d need a lot more than a great film to help us out. It’s at once daunting in its bravado, yet remains as simple a story as it is on page with a mannered visual style and some of the best photography you’ll see on screen this year. This one is special.