The selection for this year’s Cannes Film Festival seemed to suggest that gritty reality was back on the cards, with a surprise piece of social realism screening on opening night. Todd Haynes’ first feature in seven years feels like an overwhelming retaliation to all that. Beautifully adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Carol (2015) is a stunning wash of complimentary colours, yearning chords, production design and melodrama. The story begins in New York at the end of 1952, a time of uncertainty in the USA. The Second World War was over, the consumerist age had yet to come. It was a mood that helped establish the House of Un-American Activities and see the rise of film noir.
One of Rooney Mara’s first scenes is in a screening of Sunset Blvd. (1950), a landmark noir. Her friend says he’s writing down a correlation between what the people on-screen say and what they actually mean – Haynes letting us know what we’re in for, perhaps. Mara plays Therese Beliviet, a toyshop clerk in a Manhattan department store. We open on a fateful dinner between Therese and Carol Aird, a glamorous older woman played by Cate Blanchett. A young man interrupts them and they quietly part ways and we cut back to their first meeting in Belivet’s store. Carol’s browsing for a Christmas present for her daughter and the two women fleetingly lock eyes.
Therese suggests a train set and the order is put in but Carol knowingly leaves her gloves behind, a moment that will lead to their whirlwind romance. They meet for a lunch date, and later a trip to Carol’s house in New Jersey, before a road trip together where their romance come alive. At home, Carol deals with the breakdown of her marriage and we learn that she’s had such a liaison before with an old friend called Abby. The combination of her new lover and the rejection of her husband’s advances leads them into a custody battle for their only child. Stones are thrown, things get ugly and her relationship with Therese becomes increasingly hazardous. Haynes’ last foray into Sirkian melodrama, 2002’s Far From Heaven, managed to show a panoramic view of middle-class prejudice at the time. Carol just feels just that little bit smaller. There are bold strokes and moving speeches, but the plot feels nestled away in Haynes’ period setting.
Hidden like their romance perhaps, or a cubby at the back of one of Edward Hopper’s diners. Still, this is a work of defiance and craft and acting of the highest calibre. A wide-eyed Mara gazing out of foggy windows; Blanchett a monolith of grace, courage and glamour. Their moments together hold an electric quality, the camera often responding by blurring the world around them. Although arguably inferior to Far From Heaven, Haynes’ film is still an exquisite example of filmmaking as a collaborative process. Multiple Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell rolls out a stunning range of greens and reds to compliment the pastel walls and exterior sidewalks; Judy Becker’s astonishingly detailed production design winks to the consumerism and counter culture which lay ahead; and Carter Burwell provides a devastating score. A beautiful entity, near flawless in design, any talk of accolades certainly seems justified.