“Carol” universalizes from the particular, and it does so with exceptional skill and style. This is a love story between two women set at a time and place when that relationship was beyond taboo, but as its bravura filmmaking unfolds, those specifics fade and what remains are the feelings and emotions that all the best movie love stories create. And make no mistake, “Carol” belongs in that group.
Impeccably acted by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as the women in question, with an exquisite look captured by cinematographer Ed Lachman, “Carol” has been made under the complete and total control of Todd Haynes, a director who has in a sense alternated between two different kinds of provocation.
Several of Haynes’ films, such as “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (made largely with Barbie dolls) and “I’m Not There” (where six actors played Bob Dylan), confound with their nontraditional narrative techniques.
But other of his works, including “Far From Heaven,” starring Julianne Moore, and the James M. Cain “Mildred Pierce” adaptation for HBO, have a visual look that the technicians of Hollywood’s Golden Age might envy. In these films, as in “Carol,” it’s the way the decidedly modern sensibility of the narrative meets classic style that is the point.
Superbly adapted by Phyllis Nagy, “Carol” is based on “The Price of Salt,” a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, best known for unnerving psychological thrillers such as “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The subject matter was so controversial in its day (“The Novel of a Love Society Forbids,” trumpeted the paperback) that Highsmith wrote the book under a pseudonym and didn’t acknowledge authorship for 40 years.
Haynes understands that swooningly beautiful traditional technique bolstered by thrilling performances creates the greatest impact. He has made a serious melodrama about the geometry of desire, a dreamy example of heightened reality that fully engages emotions despite the exact calculations with which it’s been made.
Blanchett’s and Mara’s characters represent two poles of romantic experience. These women are united in their unsettling attraction to each other as well as the instinctive knowledge that the ramifications of a relationship will be unnerving and exhilarating.
After a brief but freighted prelude (which Haynes acknowledges was inspired by the British classic “Brief Encounter”), the story begins during the 1951 Christmas season with Therese Belivet (Mara), a salesgirl in the toy department of New York department store Frankenbergs.
Therese has a serious boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacy) who wants to marry her, but we can sense that this young woman, who harbors aspirations to be a serious photographer, is not as sure as he is.
Enter ultimate sophisticate Carol Aird (Blanchett), searching for a Christmas present for her 4-year-old daughter, Rindy. The two lock eyes across the harried sales floor, and nothing will ever be the same again.
At Therese’s suggestion, Carol buys a train set for Rindy, but, flustered, she leaves her gloves behind, and when the young girl mails them back, Carol invites her first to lunch and then to visit her at the impressive home in New Jersey she shares with Rindy and her soon-to-be-divorced husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler).
When the film switches to Carol’s point of view, we learn that she has had same-sex affairs before, most notably with old friend Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). But nothing prepares her for the inexorable impact Therese has on her.
Veteran cinematographer Lachman, who often collaborates with Haynes, beautifully shot “Carol” in Super 16mm because he wanted some of the grain that film stock of the period would have offered. His superb images are often done through car windows or rain-misted glass, emphasizing our voyeuristic interest in how this tale unfolds.