I know as we settle in to watch this movie that we are about to watch an Important Film. Carol, directed Todd Haynes, is nominated for multiple Oscars and is based on Patricia Highsmith’s culturally significant 1952 novel The Price Of Salt.
Highsmith apparently got the idea for the novel from an encounter she had with a blonde woman in a mink coat at a toy store where she worked as a sales clerk – a scene that, in the movie, is the first meeting of the two lead characters Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett). As Highsmith tells it, she was fascinated by the woman’s attire – mink coats were rare at the time – and she looked like a vision. She also states that other than that it was a routine transaction of a sales clerk and a customer. In the film however, the electricity between the two women is instant and not unlike a modern encounter more suited to a bar where two people, of whatever gender, make eye contact and are not shy about sizing the other up as a potential mate. This to me was the first jarring note in the film – there is nothing routine about the encounter and it was really unclear why Carol, who was there to buy a doll for her daughter, was being so flirty with the young Therese from the get go. There was not even a minor build-up of attraction or curiosity, just an immediate, forceful coming together of two people. Love at first sight? Maybe but while watching the film it felt like it was because the script said so.
From there things move fast-ish in terms of relationship milestones but slow in actual viewing time. We learn that Carol has an unhappy husband called Harge (Kyle Chandler) who she is in the process of divorcing and Therese has a boyfriend who she isn’t sure about settling down with. Carol invites Therese to her apartment, they decide to go on a road trip, make love and then things go to hell.
As highlights this sounds like an exciting psychological thriller, but something about the pacing makes it molasses slow. Blanchett’s Carol is arch and almost predatory. Therese is wide-eyed and kind of weepy. Everyone says each other’s name a lot, kind of like in a Bollywood movie.
The period setting is impeccably achieved and the film looks beautiful. I just wish the elegant façade and everything that played out on it didn’t feel so staged. There isn’t a moment where you understand why either character feels so strongly for the other. Carol is exquisitely dressed and Therese is smart but that can’t be what drives them to want to be together so deeply.
I know I’m in a minority because all reviews for the film have been raves. Just to clarify, I’m a woman so let’s not put this down to a man’s lack of understanding of what women feel. If you want to watch an important film that looks good, Carol might be the one for you. It didn’t move me in a way that some other stories of love, forbidden or otherwise, have done.