Working as a shopgirl in a New York department store during the Christmas Holidays in 1952, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, spies an elegant blond woman looking at the toy trains. The woman turns out to be Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, a rich woman in a loveless marriage. Therese helps Carol make her selection and a relationship develops. This being the 1950’s that relationship is very much frowned upon by society and Carol stands to lose custody of her five year old daughter.
This is a sumptuously filmed movie with beautiful fashions from the fifties, great sets and locations, which I guess they found in Cincinnati. The cinematography brings out the colors without overemphasizing them. In short all the technical aspects are perfect.
But the heart of this film are the performances of the two leads. As I’ve said before Cate Blanchett is one of the best actors working today. Her character is outwardly smooth and confidant, giving the impression that she’s comfortable and in control in any situation, the very model of strong femininity, but with a touch of detached sadness. However, she makes some very bad decisions in this film and in private moments is wracked with self-doubt.
Likewise Rooney Mara plays Therese as a young but thoughtful naïf, who has been dutifully doing the things she thinks society expects from her. She has a boyfriend, who is pressuring her to get married, and a group of bohemian friends, who seem like good guys, but to whom she doesn’t really relate. Upon first seeing Carol, a new set of feelings falls on her like a ton of bricks and she doesn’t even begin to know how to sort them out. There are scenes where she and Carol are eating somewhere and you can see Therese observing Carol’s mannerisms and habits and trying to copy them. She is growing before our eyes, even though she’s simply casting around for some sense of what’s happening to her.
The one cavil about the acting that I had was with Cory Michael Smith who plays a pivotal role in the middle of the film. As you may know Smith plays Edward Nygma on the series Gotham. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but they make him up to look exactly like his character on the TV show and his approach to the role is the same. When he makes his first appearance, I could only think, “Don’t trust him. He’s the Riddler.” A thought that is very out of place in this kind of drama. Other than that the performances were all top notch.
Carol is based upon the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt and as the author said in an interview was inspired by seeing an elegant blond woman in the department store where Highsmith worked. That sparked the idea in her head and she wrote the novel over the next few years. Her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it but she placed it with another one and with a pseudonym was put out in the subgenre of lesbian literature, which I guess was a thing back in the fifties. The subgenre was considered pulp fiction at the time and the literary tone and quality of the novel stood out.
Still it was in and out of print until the producers of this film pick it up and made this excellent adaptation.


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