Though Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is a measured, faithful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance “The Price of Salt,” there’s no mistaking its connection to the director’s other work. Since his early days with “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and “Safe,” Haynes has developed sophisticated narratives out of existing cultural reference points. With “Carol,” that approach stems from the text itself, which Haynes enriches by delivering a mannered, classical romance that replaces the original pulp identity of the novel at the time of its release with a gentle, affecting two-hander as the author surely envisioned it.
Starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in top form as a pair of women drawn together in spite of the intrusive men around them, “Carol” undeniably marks Haynes’ most contained work, though it also shows the influence of the director’s several period dramas preceding it — including his “Mildred Pierce” miniseries for HBO and, most significantly, his 2002 refashioning of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, “Far From Heaven.” Yet while those projects expressed a grand set of themes in broad strokes, “Carol” funnels them into a nuanced tale of mutual attraction that reflects a filmmaker and cast operating at the height of their powers, rendering complex circumstances in strikingly personal terms.
The essence of the material comes together with remarkable concision: The fifties-set story finds young Therese Belivet (Mara) working in a New York department store where she meets the much older Carol Aird (Blanchett) and instantly feels a connection to her. When Carol orders a delivery, a set of events lead the women to numerous follow-up meetings, as their connection begins to swell. Meanwhile, Carol contends with the developing separation from her overbearing husband Harge (Kyle Chander), and Therese gets pulled along by young suitor Richard (Jake Lacy).
Both men come across as bland, close-minded representatives of the era’s heteronormative forces, but that’s as far as the movie comes from confronting such oppression head-on. For the most part, it lingers in the developing connection between the woman as they spend a series of dates ruminating on their feelings and eventually hit the road together at the midpoint, when the mounting sexual tension finally blossoms.
Even then, however, “Carol” maintains its masterfully subdued pace — over an hour passes before the couple kiss, but the bedroom antics are there just enough to illustrate the depth of their connection. Haynes leaves the main physical details of the affair to the couple’s privacy. To that end, the filmmaker smartly levels the playing field rather than allowing for even the slightest possibility of sensationalism. The bond between the two women plays out as elegantly as the period dressing surrounding them.
The success of the material ultimately rests on the formidable strength of its actresses, both credibly buried in their roles. Blanchett is typically outstanding as the somber but strong-willed Carol, who alternates between furious outbursts with her husband and passionate declarations to her newfound companion. But the central chemistry owes much to the tender, reserved expressions registering on Mara’s face. Deftly handling a role originally intended for Mia Wasikowska without an iota of overstatement, Mara brings a physical dimension to the psychological forces in play, with her distant look aptly described by Carol as “flung out of space.”
While “Carol” keeps the focus on its central duo, it contains just enough hints to suggest a bigger set of struggles that preceded the ones in play. As Carol’s former lover and childhood friend, Sarah Paulson serves as a vessel for the baggage that has been wearing down on Carol for what one assumes to be her whole life. But Haynes rarely pauses to let the characters elaborate on their pasts; those demons merge with their current struggles in each beautifully enacted scene.
At times, the leisurely pace makes it difficult to remain invested in the characters’ unsteady romance, but eventually Haynes fleshes out an involving environment that supercedes the slow-burn nature of the plot. Phyllis Nagy’s straightforward screenplay contains the drama to the tight exchanges of its source material, but Haynes benefits just as much from regular director of photography Edward Lachman, who resurrects the shadowy, noir-like shadings of “Far From Heaven” while imbuing the more intimate scenes with a warm palette that enhances the romanticism in play. Carter Burwell’s wondrous score, which swells to a brilliant crescendo in the memorable climax, manages to elaborate on the story’s emotional foundation even when words fail the two leads.
Still, the many textures of “Carol” never lead it into any subversive or self-referential pathways, which makes it something of a departure for Haynes, who usually has a few of those tricks hidden somewhere in his schematic narrative conceits.
At the same time, however, the movie consolidates his strengths. Haynes typically renders hallmarks of American culture in surprising ways that unearth the hidden codes governing human behavior. “Carol” is no exception. In the pair of measured looks that conclude the movie, he offers a sharp reminder that while this story is complicated by its setting and particular circumstances, the underlying ingredients reveal a profound desire for companionship familiar to all.
“Carol” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. The Weinstein Company will release it this fall.