Two women’s eyes meet across a crowded Manhattan department store: shy, introverted, naïve Therese (Mara), a shop-girl in her 20s, is cute as a button in her Santa hat and bored, restless, unsure of herself while older, wiser, poised, glamorous, upper middle class hausfrau Carol (Blanchett) is trapped in a comfortable but dying marriage. Seeking a Christmas gift for her daughter, Carol engages the younger woman in conversation. It’s a fateful moment, sparking a passion that will change both their lives forever. But in the bleakly moralistic America of the 1950s can their love, a love that *theatrical stage whisper* dare not speak it’s name, survive?
A faithful but curiously uninvolving, leaden adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley author Patricia Highsmith’s breathless first novel, the seminal lesbian love story The Price Of Salt, Haynes’ Carol is his latest slow-burning exploration of period interiors and couture. Beautifully shot by Ed Lachman and styled by Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, the film is very pretty but feels a lot like thumbing through a lovingly preserved, vintage 50’s design catalogue in a Camden Rockabilly Girl’s flat. It’s a triumph of style and surface over depth and substance, a film of meaningful glances and gestures, silences pregnant with significance and anally retentive art design.
Mara and Blanchett fundamentally lack chemistry; the culmination of their slow-burning romance something of a damp squib, lacking erotic fire and passionate explosion
A loveless love story, a romance that lacks romance, the film is as suffocating as Carol’s marriage and about as passionate, animated mannequin Mara called on to do little more than gaze at Blanchett with doe-eyes while Blanchett, who feels a decade older than the character and looks a little like a praying mantis who got hold of Jackie Kennedy’s store card and went on a spending spree, goes full-on Joan Crawford with a performance of unsubtle theatricality. Their passion for each other, a passion that could destroy them both, never feels palpable, the road trip they take, touring the motels of upstate New York calls to mind Humbert Humbert’s similar trip with the object of his affections in Lolita, Blanchett’s Carol feels predatory, manipulative, as if she’s grooming Mara, engineering situations where she can seduce the younger woman. Indeed, Blanchett’s Carol feels, well, just a little selfish as she discards husband (but crucially not his money), former lover and the daughter she professes to love so much. Haynes’ Carol like much of the film is all surface sheen, she could almost be a spiritual sister of Highsmith’s Ripley, manipulating everyone around her to get what she wants. Which is something of a shame as it does Highsmith’s wonderful novel a great disservice.
Beautifully written, one of the pleasures of the novel is it’s not just a love story but a first love story, Carol filtered to us through the lovestruck, subjective gaze of the confused Therese as she struggles to come to terms with her feelings, her desires, her awakening identity. Other than briefly blurting that she’s not sure what to do during the film’s long-awaited sex scene, Mara fails to convey any of Therese’s inner life or unworldliness, is as blandly soulless and perfect as the radiogram she plays records on in Carol’s living room. Crucially, Mara and Blanchett fundamentally lack chemistry; the culmination of their slow-burning romance something of a damp squib, lacking the erotic fire and passionate explosion even of the puppet sex scene in Team America, watching them finally have sex a lot like watching a cack-handed boy scout try hopelessly to make fire by rubbing two dry sticks together.
But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m wrong, out of step. Maybe I’m just a mean-spirited turnip with a heart like a lump of charcoal. The reviews for Carol have been universally glowing, half the audience at the press screening I attended were in tears. Maybe I just lack the romance and soul to truly appreciate Carol… except… bored, in the dark, my mind drifted and I found myself thinking of a film I’d largely forgotten, Donna Deitch’s swooningly romantic, sexy as hell, lesbian love story Desert Hearts. I wished I was watching that.