Todd Haynes has become American cinema’s psychic conduit, tapping into the past to clarify the way we live now. With 2002’s Far From Heaven, his commercial breakout, he took the candy-colored ’50s women’s pictures of Douglas Sirk, stripped them of their dated camp melodrama, and gave us a timeless story about forbidden love with contemporary power. In 2011’s HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, he supersized the 1945 Joan Crawford original’s tragic feminism and made his update feel urgent and new. Now, in the achingly exquisite Carol, he’s adapted Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian-romance novel, The Price of Salt. And he’s taken what was once a taboo love story and has allowed it to speak to us with a directness and clarity that would have been hard to imagine more than six decades ago.
Set in New York City in the early ’50s, the film is a gorgeous time capsule capturing the manners and mores of America at the start of the conservative Eisenhower era, bristling with a pair of lead performances that stand among the year’s best. Rooney Mara, softening the harder edges of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, plays Therese, a shy, Audrey Hepburnesque department-store salesgirl trying to find her place in the world. During the store’s holiday rush, she meets Cate Blanchett’s Carol—a regal New Jersey housewife festooned in mink who’s scrambling for a Christmas gift for her daughter. At first, their encounter feels unexceptional. But slowly, an unspoken air of curiosity develops. Therese seems smitten by Carol’s confidence, her icy hauteur, her put-togetherness. Carol, meanwhile, sees something intoxicatingly innocent in Therese. Without too heavy a hand, Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris) load their brief encounter with a quiet but undeniable electricity. When Carol leaves her gloves behind—it’s unclear if it’s intentional or not—Therese returns them, and a friendship forms, neither quite knowing where it will lead. The audience is a step ahead of them.
Carol, in the midst of a bitter divorce and custody battle with her country-club husband (Kyle Chandler), is lost and lonely. Therese, an amateur photographer, is chafing at the pressure to marry her boyfriend and grasping for independence. They’re both looking for a way out and find it in one another. Haynes fearlessly plunges us into the women’s dual sense of yearning—their desire to be understood and loved—as they drive cross-country together, drinking, smoking, and sharing motel rooms, until their connection can no longer be denied. Like Far From Heaven, Carol mines society’s narrow-mindedness and the dangers of living a double life. But what was true more than a half century ago remains true now: The heart wants what it wants, society and propriety be damned. A–