Therese —pronounced Te-REZ—Belivet (Rooney Mara) works the toy counter in a department store in 1950s New York City. He job seems quite dull until a transfixing customer enters her life, the initially enigmatic Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). A rich, somewhat harried but kindly woman, Carol accidentally leaves her gloves behind at Therese’s counter. It’s a bit of happenstance that makes Therese incapable of getting Carol out of her mind, and upon return of the gloves, vice-versa. Therese has a pair of potential male suitors in her life: the headstrong Richard (Jake Lacy) and the more down-to-earth New York Times reporter Dannie (John Magaro). Carol, on the other hand, is married to a bland, needy, well-off man, Harge (Kyle Chandler), and has a child who she loves very much. Carol and Therese begin spending more time with each other, growing closer and closer, until a romance blooms—one that will tear Carol’s life apart.
One of the best and most fully realized romances ever made, director Todd Haynes (Safe, Far from Heaven) and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol ranks as a career best for most parties involved. It’s the best adaptation of Highsmith, besting both The Talented Mr. Ripley and Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It boasts career best performances for Mara and Chandler, and a top five performance in Blanchett’s. It heralds relative newcomer Nagy as a screenwriting voice to watch with only her second film. And perhaps most surprisingly, it’s equally Haynes’ most fully realized and accessible film. It’s the rare kind of special work where all the ingredients come together perfectly.
Carol begins like many classic love stories, as a sort of “meet cute.” Girl meets girl. There’s a push and pull of forces beyond their control, but here all of the forces are external. They know they want each other. It was love at first sight, and Haynes makes no bones about it nor holds these feelings with contempt or irony. There’s a gentle, beautiful tact to the approach, and yet, it’s as timeless a love story as has ever been told.
But upon that well-constructed romance and the obvious political and sexual connotations at the heart of it, there’s a layer of tantalizing subtlety to the storytelling and performances. At the outset, Therese is a bit of a cipher despite Nagy’s script spending a lot of time with her. We don’t know much about this woman, but there’s something beguiling and kind about her. Therese could be a blank slate, but Mara captures something ethereal within the character. It’s instantly noticeable why Carol would be attracted to her.
Similarly, as the film goes on and Therese begins questioning how serious Carol is about their relationship, the camaraderie between the performers deepens when the pair goes on a cross-country Christmastime road trip. It’s in these moments—when the outside world drops away and the couple is allowed to be cautiously free with their emotions—that the film roars to life. We know what Carol finds herself running from and why her insecure and hurting ex-husband pursues her doggedly from afar. We also know why Therese follows along with Carol. Their relationship is the honeymoon phase of all great romances placed under extreme pressure.
Blanchett does fine work, but she needs to be placed in attraction to Mara or in opposition to Chandler for the performance to truly sparkle. Outside of these moments, of which there are many, it’s just another sort of suffering housewife performance that the actress has given before. She’s good at it, but she has done it before. The scenes where she has to show a romantic passion and the conviction to fight for the things she loves are the moments she stretches the most. A side plot about Carol’s relationship to her best friend (played wonderfully by Sarah Paulson) also adds a considerable amount of depths to Blanchett’s portrayal as someone who might not be fully truthful with Therese, either. Carol might be the titular character, but the film is more about the people and pressures around her.
As for Haynes, he adapts his distinctly distancing style to create a picture of true longing. Usually keeping his audience as observers held at bay, Haynes invites the viewer into all of Carol and Therese’s frustrations and desires. It’s the warmest the usually voyeuristic Haynes has been, despite the film’s purposefully chilly visual palate. It’s an evocative film, benefiting hugely from Haynes’s frequent cinematographer, Edward Lachman. You can practically smell the film and feel the loneliness when the characters are apart. But you can also feel the joy, fear and sadness when they’re together.
As a sum of its exceptional parts, Carol is near perfection.