starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
directed by Todd Haynes
by Walter Chaw Todd Haynes movies tend to grow on me. I expect that Carol, his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, will do the same. First pass, though, finds me considering a film adapted by a filmmaker I like from an author I adore as fully twenty minutes too long with enough fake-out climaxes and epilogues that you can almost see the air hissing out of it. Maybe it has something to do with the relative straight-forwardness of Haynes's approach here. Gone are the Sirk shrines that indicate his best work as a modern evocation of the great German expat's lush Technicolor tragedies; Carol doesn't pack the same kind of punch, because it doesn't allow us to access it as allegory. A couple of longing, lingering moments shot through snow-wet car windows and in Edward Hopper-framed hotel rooms (it's Haynes's most Wenders work), as well as a final shot that is the picture at its most evocative and unapologetically Romantic, point to the film that might have been. It could have been a more hypnotic exercise. It could have found a certain lulling rhythm in its longueurs. In Carol, the high stylization of Haynes is evoked mainly in the carefully-affected stiffness of the performances. Highsmith's prose is a delight but, freed of the awful gestalt of its pulsing drive, it proves a tall order for the cast asked to speak it.
Carol (Cate Blanchett), trapped in a loveless marriage with everybody's all-American Harge (Kyle Chandler), has a nice interaction one Christmas with mousy shopgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) and soon after embarks on a road trip/affair with her young charge. It's all drowsy, with Therese taking on Highsmith's stock character of emotional cipher and social aspirant against Carol's blue-blood blues. Maybe the problem is that I'm a little tired of Cate Blanchett playing this role. Her lazy drool of classy pronouncements and mums and murmurs never fails to remind me now of her appalling take on elf queen Galadriel--and of the parodies "The Critic" used to do of prestige product like this. (Tarantino was right about her.) It's a shame, too, because she's immensely gifted and could do different things. I'm frankly also a little tired of indie it-girl Rooney Mara (replacing former indie it-girl Mia Wasikowska in this very role), whose glassy detachment only becomes interesting when applied to a rape-revenge fantasy like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Her Therese is meek even in conflict. A late-film argument with an oafish suitor in which she makes a couple of emphatic arm gestures was as surprising and shocking to me as if she'd pulled out an axe and done a Pink Floyd on the room.
For all that, for all the fat and looseness of the film and the potential irritations of its casting, Carol still carries a powerful fascination through its bluntness. It's set in 1950 or thereabouts, and the details of the period are meticulous. And it carries a certain fascination as a very fine evocation of its pulp source. Highsmith published the novel under a pseudonym, drawing from her own experiences and those of a friend. It's unique in her library for its relative optimism, its lack of an antihero with obvious actual mental illness--though it still carries with it some essential yearning for belonging. (In that and in its caustic brilliance, Highsmith's literary output has its closest cinematic analogue in Billy Wilder.) In Carol, there's unusual insight and empathy for the misdiagnosis of mental illness and then the sometimes-dangerous, socially-accepted tactics for treatment. It's interesting, for instance, the steps that Harge takes to save his marriage: He tries to assert his status as head of the household; then he tries to assert social mores; then he hires a private detective; then he tries to assert the rule of the law; and then he tries to involve science. At her best, Highsmith's all about cages. Haynes at his best is about cages, too. It's a nice fit, but it's fair to wonder if the fit is so comfortable that Haynes has treated the text like holy relic, or internalized it as his own, and declined to adjust its pace to better lubricate a different medium. Carol is fine. It should have been more than that.