Cate Blanchett swans into rooms, her hair bobbing flawlessly in a French vanilla swirl, as the title character of Todd Haynes’ Carol. We’re used to seeing the two-time Oscar winner move with an air of hauteur—she was the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella, after all, not to mention Bob Dylan in Haynes’ previous film I’m Not There—but as Carol, she’s never been a more elusive object of desire. And that’s felt deepest by the young shopgirl named Therese (Rooney Mara), who falls madly in love with Carol in 1950s New York City and embarks on an eventful road trip with her across the country.
Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith’s landmark 1952 lesbian-romance paperback The Price of Salt, touted as “the novel of a love society forbids.” “I first read it years ago, when I was filming my small part in a different Highsmith film, The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Blanchett says. “It was revelatory. You can’t forget [Highsmith] is the goddess of crime fiction, but in this instance it’s the desire which is criminal.” Blanchett, 46, came across the screenplay adaptation by Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris) years ago and found it even more balanced and delicate than the book. But, she adds, “I suppose what makes it so special is why it was so difficult to get made.”
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That changed two years ago when Haynes came on board. “I’d heard about the project through [Oscar-winning costume designer] Sandy Powell, and I was a little jealous,” he says. “I mean, Patricia Highsmith and Cate Blanchett—who wouldn’t want to see that?” The 54-year-old director had visited the 1950s before in his most celebrated film, 2002’s Far From Heaven, “but my concepts were very different this time,” he explains. “Far From Heaven was meant to evoke the hypercolored 1950s of the movies, but here I wanted to be in the murky, naturalistic world. We looked at lots of female photographers from the ’50s and used mirrors and windows and reflections to illustrate the hidden emotions of the characters.”
To re-create an authentic Manhattan of the Eisenhower era, Haynes shot the film in and around Cincinnati. “In New York, except in a few protected neighborhoods, you can’t find a block that doesn’t have construction from the last 20 years,” says production designer Judy Becker (American Hustle). “Cincinnati is a wealthy city and there are lots of private clubs, which really worked for us.” Even the Ohio locals, many of whom were cast as extras, “seem like they’re out of a time warp,” says Haynes’ longtime cinematographer Ed Lachman (The Virgin Suicides). Every shot was filmed on an actual location, with one exception: a tasteful yet deliberately erotic hotel-room love scene between the two women that required the privacy of a built set.
Which brings us back to the movie’s hook: taboo romance. “Of course, it’s a story about a lesbian relationship,” says Haynes. “But it’s really about how love itself makes you feel at a loss for language, and every gesture is weighted with anticipation and meaning.” Blanchett was attracted, as well, to the book’s open ending. “It was the first gay novel where someone didn’t kill themselves or get redeemed by the love of a good straight person,” she says. “Irrespective of sexual preference, it’s honest about the feeling of falling in love.”
In May, Carol premiered to universal praise at the Cannes Film Festival, where the jury awarded Mara’s quieter performance. It was an unexpected move, and one that thrilled Blanchett. “The transformation Rooney makes in very subtle ways, from girl to woman, via heartbreak, is astonishing,” she says. “There’s so much withheld in her character. I mean, Therese is not somebody who’s tweeting all day on Instagram and putting it all out there.” Don’t count on audiences to repress their swoons.
Carol opens in theaters on November 20th. See two clips from the film here.
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