Adapted from the acclaimed Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt,” Carol was a rare story about gay rights in a context that left the characters in a decent place at the end. With an attempt to undo homosexual taboo, Highsmith changed her mostly-thriller style to craft a beautiful romance between the seductive mother (Cate Blanchett) and the agreeable and timid store-clerk (Rooney Mara). Both actresses have received numerous accreditation and nominations for their work in this, and rightfully so, although the film does occasionally suffer from poor pacing and a lackluster adapted screenplay.
The film opens up with Therese Belivet (Mara) working in a department store selling Christmas dolls and model train sets. She catches the eye of Carol Aird (Blanchett), a 40ish mother with a forceful assertiveness but a playful and flirtatious demeanor. They begin talking, and Carol starts her seduction of Therese, even leaving behind a pair of gloves for her to return. When she does, they agree to a lunch date, and then a dinner date, and then a Christmas get-together, and so on. Their relationship begins to bloom, with Therese leaving behind her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) and denying a chance to be a New York Times photographer from her friend Dannie (John Magaro).
Carol, however, is also dealing with personal strife. Her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has suspected their separation to be due to Carol seeing other women, a fact that is mostly true, but it’s obvious that Harge and Carol still care about one another, just not really romantically. Harge threatens to take full custody of Carol’s daughter, exposing a previous homosexual relationship with her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) in a court exhibit. The custody petition grants Harge temporary custody, so Carol flees the state until the final hearing, convincing Therese to go on a road trip to Chicago with her by car, partially for sexual discovery, partially for companionship and healing.
Although the scenes of pure acting bliss between the great Blanchett and the surprisingly good Mara are in an occasionally confusing context, it’s their grounded performance that keeps it afloat in a clear Oscar-caliber picture that showcases the mixture of romance and confusion that these two characters are dealing with. Blanchett, again, plays a bit of a larger-than-life character as she always does. She’s tall, assertive, and commands the screen when she’s in frame. There’s an occasional spot in her movies when her constant focus on being ‘the stunning older woman’ can be a bit irritating, something Meryl Streep may have went through at that age as well. Actors with such a pedigree reach a point where they really have to stretch out before what worked for them before fizzles out. Blanchett still is doing a great job, but I’d like her next movie to be something a little out of left field. Regardless, this is some of the best acting she’s ever done.
Mara also does a nice job. She’s not known for being timid in a way that the film writes her character, and her growth as she discovers herself is really evident in a great scene that occurs near the end of the movie. Other than her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Mara hasn’t really been that exposed as a good actress, and this should help her. She starts under the spell of the robust and stunning Blanchett, but then settles into her role quite nicely. The growth of their romance is good, but it’s after they become comfortable with each other that becomes great, such as small conversations about ‘getting some magazines for the road,’ or small and personal things that signify their eventual comfort and relaxed nature with each other. That’s the real hero in their relationship, familiarity. We can attest to it, latch onto it, and enjoy two great actresses doing a great job on screen.
The flaws really become evident from the get-go, however. In a film that has its major sub-plot be decided by a legal custody battle, it was only logical to assume that Phyllis Nagy (the screenwriter) and director Todd Haynes would have to know the way to present this subplot in a correct and studious fashion. They do not. The legal battle that ensues between Blanchett and Kyle Chandler’s Harge is emotional, but it’s not grounded in court procedure at all. It’s frustrating to watch an emotional element of the story be bogged down by details that don’t really make a ton of sense. Nagy has never written a theatrical film before, and it shows. The pacing is very off here, and the way that Mara and Blanchett’s relationship starts feels rushed and confused. Haynes seems so focused on crafting this glossy, interesting visual aesthetic, crafted by cinematographer Edward Lachman, around the film that the holes in the screenplay become unnoticed. Not only were they frustrating, but it did occasionally take me out of the movie and question its overall quality.
The scenes that showcase the Holiday season, and the winter, warm romance that blossoms between the characters is certainly a toasty drama for the holidays. It’s extremely enjoyable to curl up in the theater and witness some of the great scenes, but like I stated before, it does become frustrating when certain parts of the story feel so illogical and inaccurate. Kyle Chandler puts in a great supporting performance, but he often feels like ‘the evil ex-husband trope,’ and Sarah Paulson doesn’t add very much to this either. When the film derails from the admittedly rushed and implausible romance between the central characters, it suffers. Luckily, they are the stars, they’re on the screen for the most time, and it makes some of the plot holes a little more forgivable because of the great acting and interesting visual nature of the film.