‘Carol’: Production design is star of 1950s lesbian romance

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, December 23, 2015 10:53am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

“The Price of Salt” is a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith (using the pseudonym Claire Morgan) about a lesbian romance. It sold a lot of copies in an underground way, and must’ve had great subversive punch as both a tale about “a love that dare not speak its name” and one in which the gay protagonists were not subjected to either a straightening “cure” or guilt-ridden suicide.

In 2015, that layer of illicit discovery is impossible for Todd Haynes’ movie adaptation to resurrect. The Portland, Oregon-based director instead presents a period piece that offers its passions in impeccably designed scenes that contain remarkably few surprises.

The romance simmers between Therese (Rooney Mara), a department-store salesgirl with vague notions of becoming a photographer, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant lady currently divorcing her respectable husband (Kyle Chandler).

The unformed Therese has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) but is stirred by Carol’s fur-swaddled allure; they meet in Manhattan during Christmas season 1952 and a slow-burning attraction develops.

Carol’s custody battle with her husband — a man more bewildered than evil — is affected by her sexual orientation, but Haynes is less interested in the social-issue aspects of the story than in the hesitant intimacy between the two women. This plays out against luscious production design, which frankly overwhelms the people — were the Fifties really this relentlessly arranged? — like a visual reminder of the constraints on this romance.

Haynes re-calibrated the midcentury melodrama in “Far from Heaven,” but “Carol” is less artificial than that exercise.

His best borrowing here explicitly lifts a storytelling device from the classic “Brief Encounter” — beginning the film with the romance’s end (trampled on by a boorish bystander), and then flashing back so that when we return to the scene 90 minutes later we understand what was really happening. The twist on “Brief Encounter” is that these characters do not have to be martyred on the altar of propriety.

Blanchett rises from the screen like a careful layout from a glossy magazine, all Joan Crawford-style mask — with only the occasional side glance to suggest uncertainty.

Mara, the tranquil star of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” brings her tiny intensity to bear on a character who remains quiet (Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay is short on spelling out meanings).

If “Carol” feels less adventurous than Haynes’ previous forays into upending Hollywood styles, it still maintains a pulse because Blanchett and Mara are superb at executing one of the cinema’s great gifts: the exchanged glance, held long enough to scorch even the well-mannered Fifties.

“Carol” (3 stars)

A lushly photographed tale of lesbian romance in the early 1950s, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara both excellent as the hesitant lovers. Director Todd Haynes plays this with remarkably few surprises but an abundance of gorgeous production design.

Rating: R, for nudity, subject matter

Showing: Guild 45th

Talk to us

More in Life

A clump of flowering ornamental grass or pennisetum alopecuroides in an autumn garden.
My garden runneth over with fountain grasses, and for good reason

These late-blooming perennials come in many varieties. They work well as accents, groundcovers, edgings or in containers.

Dark gray wheels and black exterior accents provide extra visual appeal for the 2024 Subaru Impreza’s RS trim. (Subaru)
2024 Subaru Impreza loses a little, gains a lot

The brand’s compact car is fully redesigned. A couple of things are gone, but many more have arrived.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay walks into the Prohibition Grille along Hewitt Avenue in Everett Wednesday Dec. 5, 2012 while reportedly filming an episode of Kitchen Nightmares at the Everett restaurant. (Mark Mulligan / The Herald)
Even more films and TV shows filmed in Snohomish County

Readers point out projects previously missed in this series, from reality television to low-budget indie films.

Daniella Beccaria / for The Herald

15-month-old Kantu attempts to climb a pumpkin at Stocker Farms in Snohomish on Sunday, September 20th, 2015. Stocker Farms offers a U-pick patch, farm animals and a corn maze.
Best pumpkin patch in Snohomish County

You voted, we tallied, here are the results.

A woman diverts from her walk on Colby Avenue to take a closer look at a pickup truck that was partly crushed by a fallen tree during an overnight wind storm Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in north Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)
Storm season is coming. Here’s how to prepare for power outages.

The most important action you can take is to make an emergency preparedness kit.

Do you prefer green or red grapes? This antique Moser pitcher is decorated with enameled grapevines on shaded red-to-green glass.
Grapevine pitcher was made by renowned Bohemian company

Also, queries about grandmother’s coffee set and late husband’s Beatles records and memorabilia collection.

The city of Mukilteo is having a naming contest for its new $75,000 RC Mowers R-52, a remote-operated robotic mower. (Submitted photo)
Mukilteo muncher: Name the $75,000 robot mower

The city is having a naming contest for its new sod-slaying, hedge-hogging, forest-clumping, Mr-mow-it-all.

Death of parent with child. Piece of paper with parents and children is torn in half.
Helping children cope with the hard realities of divorce

I’s important to set aside one’s feelings and find a way to make this challenging transition as comfortable for children as you can.

In Belgium, each type of beer has its own glass – whether wide, tall, or fluted – to show off its distinct qualities.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Bruges brews lift a weary traveler’s spirits

The Belgian city is a mecca for beer lovers from around the world.

Most Read