In 1952 Patricia Highsmith was so fed up with depictions of gay women in fiction who were either punished or pitied, that she decided to write a novel about love between two women that actually reflected her life as well as the crushing hypocrisy of straight society.
That novel, The Price of Salt, published under a pseudonym went on to be a million seller.
63 years later this novel has been filmed, and yet this is no mere filmed novel. Too often Hollywood provides solid, stagey but cinematically inert period movies that clutter up the acting award categories at the Oscars. This transcends its source to be a truly beautiful, moving and daring movie.
Rooney Mara’s Therese is a shop worker in 1950s new York. She meets Carol played by Cate Blanchett, who is buying a train set for her daughter. Therese is soon invited to dinner with Carol. Their relationship gradually develops through subtle performances and lush and arresting direction.
As Carol’s marriage fails, so does Therese’s relationship with her boyfriend. Neither Carol or Therese are willing or able to perform the roles assigned to women in McCarthyite America. They fall in love, but scarcely have the words to express this.
Roles start to be reversed as Therese gets a job as a press photographer and Carol is caught up in a battle over custody of her child with her wounded and hurt ex-husband Harge. Harge’s tragedy is he loves Carol even though he knows he can’t make her happy.
The brilliance of Todd Haynes’s direction is that the story of Carol and Therese isn’t told, it’s felt. Every detail, from the clothes the characters wear, to how they smoke cigarettes, to every deep focus or abstracted out-of-focus shot is telling us something about the characters relationship and about the society they live in and the subjectivity of the camera itself.
Haynes’s rose to prominence as part of the “New Queer Cinema” movement. He has always been interested in how subversive critiques of gender, race and class were smuggled into some of the lush and on the surface conventional movies of the 40s and 50s. In the case of his movie Far From Heaven the influence was the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. In Carol’s case it’s the classic British movie Brief Encounter.
This movie has struggled to get to the screen. The script was first written 19 years ago by Phyllis Nagy. No producer or star would touch it until Cate Blanchett herself took up getting the film made. Finally in 2011 Todd Haynes heard of the movie and asked to direct. Even then it took four more years to get the film funded and made.
Even now the movie poster managed to use a shot of Carol dancing with her husband rather than a shot with Therese, presumably thinking even today the suggestion that it’s a movie about lesbians would put off a mass audience.
It’s likely Hollywood will garland Carol with Oscars and pat itself on its back for being associated with such a socially progressive and artistically brilliant movie, and then go back to ensuring movies like Carol hardly ever get made.