I finished reading Patricia Highsmith’s Carol while waiting in the (very long) press line to see Todd Haynes’ much-anticipated adaptation of the novel, which premiered here at Cannes last night. It was one of those unforgettable moments. Already loving the novel and hugely excited for the film, I was blown away by the grace, poignancy, and quiet power of the final chapter and by Highsmith’s brave, pitch-perfect resolution of the narrative. Could the film do justice to the novel and yet emerge as something fresh and distinctive in its own right? Well, as it turns out, it’s a complicated story.
Published pseudonymously in 1952 as The Price of Salt, just after its author’s success with Strangers on a Train, Highsmith’s novel has the distinction of being a deeply sympathetic and complex portrait of a lesbian affair written at a time when such portraits were not so much rare as nonexistent. As Val McDermid points out in her terrific foreword to the Bloomsbury edition of the novel, “The real significance of Carol is that it was the first serious work of literature with lesbian protagonists that didn’t end with suicide, despair or a cure thanks to the love of a good man.”
The novel is told from the emotional point-of-view of Therese Belivet, an aspiring theatre designer working at a New York department store and involved in a relationship with a painter, Richard, whom she doesn’t love. One day, at the store, Therese attends to a customer with whom she’s instantly smitten. Carol is an elegant, slightly enigmatic socialite who’s in the process of divorcing her husband. She has come to the shop to buy a gift for her daughter. The two women keep in contact, and a mutual attraction grows.
There are few directors working today who seem more suited to bringing this material to the screen than Haynes, a most intellectually sophisticated yet humane of formalists. The director’s stunning Sirk valentine, Far From Heaven (2002), and his equally accomplished 2011 miniseries, Mildred Pierce, demonstrate his skills with female-focused, ’50s-era forbidden love stories and literary adaptations. (And hey, taking into account his great drama, Safe (1995), and Far From Heaven (2002), Haynes even has a penchant for heroines called Carol.)
Carol re-teams the director with several of his previous collaborators – notably DP Edward Lachman and costume designer Sandy Powell – and the reunion pays dividends. From its opening pan shot, Carol is visually vibrant and arresting. Tipping his hat to peers such as Wong Kar-Wai and Terence Davies at their swooniest and drawing inspiration from Edward Hopper paintings and ’50s-era photography (Therese’s profession has been switched from designer to photojournalist here), Haynes and his collaborators have produced a sumptuously beautiful film. When the achingly seductive images are combined with Carter Burwell’s exquisite score (the kind of music that’s so right for the picture that you want to applaud as soon as it begins) the effect is intoxicating.
What’s less effective is some of the compression and compromising at the narrative level and the simplifying and softening of certain character details. Whether this is down to meddling hands (the Weinstein Company is among the film’s producers) or whether Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy just wimped out a touch, Carol fails to convey the deep complexities of the central relationship. Instead, it plumps for the altogether easier option of pinning the women’s difficulties firmly at the door of patriarchal and homophobic forces. These are certainly suggested in the novel, but far more central, ultimately, are the protagonists’ own (very human) quirks and inconsistencies.
It’s understandable that Haynes and Nagy have widened the perspective of the text away from Therese’s point of view and some of the new scenes that they’ve devised for Carol – ones that attempt to flesh out her relationship with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), for example – are quite good. Another terrific invention is an opening structural device that, featuring an unfortunate intrusion and one character’s hand placed galvanizingly on the shoulder of another, plays a direct and delicious homage to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945).
However, in making the character of Carol too easily sympathetic – a more conventional victim rather than the seductive but often brittle and unreachable figure of the book – Nagy and Haynes have weakened the role and given Cate Blanchett fewer notes than she might have had to play. For example, when Carol is slightly rude to Therese in one scene, she instantly calls her to apologise, and when asked to give a verdict on Therese’s photos, she immediately pronounces them “perfect”. Not so in the book. Moreover, Haynes and Nagy are almost embarrassingly eager to show what a concerned and doting mother Carol is. In short, this Carol is made a shade too adorable, and the character’s capacity for cruelty and withdrawal is stripped away.
Blanchett is a vision, of course: immaculately coiffured and costumed, she looks like a dream image of slightly fated ‘50s bourgeois glam. The actress has, as always, put great care and consideration into her work: the sensual gait, the low, caressing vocal tones, the Gena Rowlands-esque hair tosses – it all feels very consciously worked out (though never very natural.) But again, the filmmakers’ insistence that we don’t lose sympathy with Carol, even for a moment, blunts the impact of the role.
Rooney Mara as Therese is much more problematic since the actress, recessive and blank-faced, seems incapable of portraying a girl in the grip and shock of overwhelming passion. As Mara plays it, Therese seems mildly curious about Carol, and the character’s massive awakening and transformation (the story is a Bildungsroman, of sorts) isn’t conveyed. It’s an unfortunate piece of miscasting. It leaves one regretful not to have seen what a more emotionally present and expressive actress – Elle Fanning, say – might have brought to this role.
Other elements in Haynes’ Carol seem underworked, too. The scenes in which the women take to the road – a proto-Thelma and Louise, complete with a pistol – should feel liberating and subversive, but here they pretty much become just one hotel check-in after another. An encounter with a pivotal male character on their travels (more about whom it would be churlish to reveal) is fumbled and rushed. Some scenes seem to relate to passages in Highsmith’s book that got edited out. “Why do you hate me so much?” At one point, Therese asks Carol’s friend and former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson). But we’ve seen little evidence in this account that Abby has any feelings about Therese. (Abby is another character whom Nagy and Haynes have seriously softened up.)
I feel sad to raise these reservations since there’s so much to enjoy about Carol: visually, the film goes so far beyond your expectations that it’s often overwhelming. In terms of emotional content and the presentation of complex, nuanced relationships, however, Carol is much less satisfying. Still, as with so much of Haynes’ work, Carol remains a definite must-see – and preferably on the biggest screen possible.