With Carol, filmmaker Todd Haynes continues to delve into forbidden love during a tense, conflicted era. In 2002, he had ’50s housewife Julianne Moore flirting with African-American gent Dennis Haysbert (while her husband, Dennis Quaid, was busy failing to suppress his homosexuality) in the period melodrama Far from Heaven.
But while that was practically a Douglas Sirk tribute in ironic quotation marks, Carol is more like a same-sex Brief Encounter. And just like that classic love story, the subject matter is handled with genuine, romantic sincerity.
Once again tripping back to the beautiful but hopelessly repressed ’50s, Haynes casts Rooney Mara as a single shopgirl who is drawn to the title character, a high-society dame played by Cate Blanchett. A harmless friendship morphs into a frowned-upon affair as Carol tries to at once court her new love and keep custody of her daughter, which her estranged, torch-carrying husband (Kyle Chandler, stubborn but sympathetic) is fighting her for in their divorce.
Using Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 book, The Price of Salt, as source material—screenwriter Phyllis Nagy does a solemn job with the script—Haynes returns to something he knows all too well: how to hammer through the façades of seemingly content people to get to the secrets and lies hidden underneath. He finds an ideal pair of frustrated lovebirds in Blanchett and Mara, who know how to show the pain and confusion inside them through their eyes alone. Though only Blanchett is being touted for a best actress nod this awards season, both give performances worthy of a nomination.
What’s fascinating about Carol is how Haynes and his performers create a sophisticated story about two people trying to be together in an environment that’s quietly suffocating them. With longtime cinematographer Edward Lachmann capturing everything in dry, muted colors, we feel just as stifled and boxed-in as these women. Not to give anything away, but Haynes follows Highsmith’s example and ultimately provides some light at the end of this maddening, harrowing yet exquisite love story.