Reviewed by Graham Fuller

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol

In a hopeful era for gay equality, exemplified by the legalization in America of same-sex marriages on June 26, 2015, Todd Haynes’s Carol has rightfully been acclaimed as an exquisite, historically pertinent film about the prejudice and legal difficulties women lovers faced on the cusp of the Eisenhower era—and as one that obviates such circumscribing labels as “lesbian” and “Sapphic.” The movie’s sensory evocation of falling in love, with all its joys and miseries, is gender-blind; its critique of patriarchal power-hoarding and bourgeois repressiveness—the Sirkian theme Haynes previously explored in Far from Heaven (2002)—is timeless.

Beginning just before Christmas 1952 (the year homosexuality was officially classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association) and concluding shortly after New Year 1953 (the year Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published), Haynes’s movie builds on Patricia Highsmith’s source novel, adapted by Phyllis Nagy, in suggesting that an epoch in which a supposedly sophisticated society criminalized and medically stigmatized nonheterosexuals was a Dark Age to be fled. Flee it—like film noir lovers on the run—is what Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) vainly attempt.

The film starts with the end of a tense conversation between the women in an upscale Manhattan cocktail lounge (the viewer not yet privy to Carol’s having been forced by her ex-husband’s lawyer to end her relationship with Therese or face losing the right to visit their young daughter, Rindy). The scene is directly inspired by its equivalent, set in an English train-station café in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). When Jack, a friend of Therese, rudely interrupts the two, inviting both women to a holiday party, Therese agrees to go with him. As Carol departs for The Oak Room to meet friends, she intimately squeezes Therese’s shoulder, echoing the shoulder squeeze Brief Encounter’s Alec (Trevor Howard) gives Laura (Celia Johnson) on leaving her. At this point, the viewer remains unaware that Therese, though stronger for having loved and apparently lost Carol in a few weeks, has too proudly refused Carol’s offer to live with her. Cabbing it downtown with Jack—her wistfulness heightened by the rainy night—Therese recalls the affair, initiating the film’s primary narrative as extended flashback.

The viewer sees much more than what Therese can relive in a fifteen-minute taxi ride, a conceit common to films largely comprised of extended memories or dreams. A reserved but ambitious photographer, Therese is working as a temporary Christmas-rush salesgirl behind the toy counter of a midtown New York department store called Frankenberg’s when she and holiday shopper Carol—a vision in mink—fall for each other at first sight. The revelation transcends their differences in age and social status: Therese is a working-class orphan, Carol a bourgeois New Jersey mother seeking a divorce from her wealthy businessman husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Tension accrues from Carol’s deferral of sexual consummation and, later, from their being menacingly stalked on a road trip by Harge’s hired detective.

Carol’s nervousness about sleeping with Therese is due primarily to Harge’s lawyer having made legal hay of an earlier affair between Carol and her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), in ongoing attempts to limit her access to Rindy. After traveling more than a thousand miles west, Carol and Therese eventually make love, rapturously, in an Iowa hotel room (in a town ominously named Waterloo). Carol imagines that distance affords anonymity, only to discover that the detective has bugged their room and recorded their conversations. Preserving what she can of her child-visitation rights, Carol ends the romance in a letter—“I release you,” she writes to the heartbroken Therese.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol

The path of true love continues to run less than smoothly beyond the cocktail-lounge rendezvous that is replayed in longer form near the end of the film. As we (and the film) catch up in time, the holiday party Therese half-heartedly attends reveals that she is now as magnetic to another woman as Carol was to her when they first met—and that this former toy salesgirl has “put away childish things,” including her girlish tam-o’-shanter and her subservient tendencies. Overcoming her passivity conclusively, she heads back uptown and pushes through the mostly male diners and waiters in The Oak Room to find Carol.

Highsmith’s second book (following Strangers on a Train), The Price of Salt (later reissued as Carol) was published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” in 1952. It broke ground as the first American novel about lesbian lovers with an upbeat ending and would prove her most optimistic work. Highsmith had been working as a temporary salesgirl in Bloomingdale’s toy department in December 1948 when she had a momentary encounter with Kathleen Wiggins Senn, a beautiful blonde shopper, whom she would subsequently stalk twice but probably never saw again. A few hours after meeting Senn, Highsmith wrote—in a chickenpox fever—the outline for The Price of Salt. A psychological love story with a sadomasochistic subtext, it echoes crime fiction in presenting Therese as a sleuth of emotions, obsessively investigating Carol’s personality and circumstances in order to ferret out Carol’s emotional commitment to her. But, in keeping with Highsmith’s usual genre, the novel also is a crime story, with the women pursued as sexual fugitives.

Highsmith based Carol’s anxiety concerning Rindy on a former lover’s experiences. Before the author met her, socialite Virginia Kent Catherwood had been tape-recorded in similar circumstances to Carol and had lost custody of her daughter. She was later sued by the gold-digging David Mdivani for alienating the affections of his second wife, Virginia Sinclair, whose industrialist father, Harry Sinclair, had been implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal. Mdivani’s first wife was silent star Mae Murray, reportedly Gloria Swanson’s model for Sunset Boulevard’s deranged Norma Desmond. Thus, when Mara’s Therese and her male friends, squashed in a projection booth, watch Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, she is given a warning of the perils of repression and avarice among the upper class. Mara’s resemblance to Audrey Hepburn moreover invokes Hepburn’s schoolteacher in William Wyler’s 1961 adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, which culminates in the suicide of the teacher’s lesbian friend. If Highsmith ever thought of sending Therese and Carol to the theater, she would have hopefully bought them tickets for The Children’s Hour, the winter 1952 Broadway revival of which coincided exactly with their romance.

Described as “a balladeer of stalking” by the critic Susannah Clapp, Highsmith stalked not only Kathleen Senn but also Greta Garbo, whom she bizarrely likened to her mother, according to Joan Schenkar’s biography The Talented Miss Highsmith. Carol, the Garbo of Highsmith’s imagination, and Annabelle, the woman the deluded protagonist of her novel This Sweet Sickness stalks, are idealized versions of the eroticized mother Highsmith sought to recapture in her many lovers, having never resolved her tortured Oedipal relationship with her own mother, from whom she was briefly but crucially separated at age twelve. The sociopathic impulses of Highsmith’s antihero Tom Ripley and her other literary killers seemingly originated in the hatred she conceived for her stepfather, at age three, for having married her mother…

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