Carol

January 14, 2016
Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett in 'Carol' (2015)
Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett in 'Carol' (2015)

It’s difficult to make a great movie from a great novel. Even the best directors struggle to capture the psychological nuances, the purposeful construction of personalities and subplots. An author can tell us much that a director can only suggest, unless he or she wants to make an unbearably wordy film.

In Carol, Todd Haynes has succeeded in making a very good film from a novel that has been known as a cult classic when it deserves a place in the front rank of American fiction of the 1950s. I’d put Carol (1952) on a par with J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), and ahead of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which set the scene for the self-indulgent reign of Beat literature.

Carol was Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, following the sophisticated thriller of 1950, Strangers on a Train, (immediately made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock). Carol grew out of an epiphany, when Highsmith, working as a sales assistant in a department store, was struck by the sight of an elegant, blonde woman in a mink coat.

She wrote the book quickly, but it was rejected by Harper, which wanted a thriller. Another publisher picked up the book, which appeared under the title, The Price of Salt, written by the pseudonymous Claire Morgan. The novel would go on to be published in a 25 cent edition, as a salacious lesbian romance. In this format it sold over a million copies and generated hundreds of letters from readers who felt the book spoke directly to their own lives.

There had never been a ‘lesbian’ novel like Carol. There was no attempt at gratuitous titillation, no assertion of the moral orthodoxies that return to punish the deviant protagonists. It was a book about love at first sight; about erotic obsession that erodes the boundaries of social propriety; about the conflict between maternal love and private passion.

All of this is conveyed in Haynes’s adaptation which recreates the atmosphere of 1950s America in exquisite, painstaking detail. Cate Blanchett gives a committed performance as Carol Aird, the society woman who falls for a shop girl. Rooney Mara is equally good as Therese Belivet, whose passion for Carol begins as a distant worship, and becomes overwhelming.

The film is pretty much a two-hander, with supporting roles played by Carol’s estranged husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who exudes emotional pain and wilful misunderstanding; Abby (Sarah Paulson), Carol’s best friend and former lover, who is jealous and sympathetic by turns; and by the men in Therese’s life, who would like to win her love.

The story has been simplified and compressed for the screen, losing both subtlety and suspense. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to admire in this version, which remains true to the spirit of Highsmith’s novel. The first meeting is beautifully choreographed, allowing us to feel the tingle of electricity that passes between these women. Carol invites Therese to her house, on the slightest of pretexts, and Therese is quick to accept.

Therese’s boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy) wants her to come with him to Europe, but instead she accepts Carol’s offer of a long, aimless road trip. As the women drive from city to city it’s hard not to think of the journeys taken by Jack Kerouac’s bohemians, and by Humbert Hubert and Lolita. There was something about the 1950s that made people want to get in the car and escape.

The ending is important to the way the story has always been received, so I won’t give it away. It would be a serious misnomer to classify Carol as a ‘gay’ film. In this it is similar to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), in which two ordinary cowboys just can’t keep away from each other. Carol and Therese don’t identify as lesbians. They are responding to a powerful, instinctual attraction that gradually breaks down social conventions and personal inhibitions.

In an age when gay marriage is such a hot topic, there is inevitably an ideological message to be taken from this movie. One doubts, however, that this was the filmmakers’ intention. Carol is an immersive love story that Haynes’s idol, Douglas Sirk, would have been proud to call his own.

Carol
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Phyllis Nagy, after a novel by Patricia Highsmith
Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, John Magaro, Jake Lacy
UK/USA, rated M, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 16th January, 2016.