Directed by Todd Haynes
Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy
Based on “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith
Music by Carter Burwell
Cate Blanchett as Carol
Rooney Mara as Therese
Kyle Chandler as Harge, Carol’s husband
Jake Lacy as Richard, There’s boyfriend
Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol’s best friend
Smoking in the original novel, also. 1953 paperback edition
The issue is the relative thinness of plot for two hours. The original 1952 novel The Price of Salt was based on Patricia Highsmith’s passionate reaction to a wealthy, beautifully dressed women she served while working in a department store in New York in 1948, mixed with a narrative on the custody battles of her earlier partner. At the time, the lesbian theme was so outrageous (a love that society forbids) that Highsmith published under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. As the cover says she handles explosive material … with sincerity and very good taste.
The first meeting. Therese left, Carol right.
Carol is the wealthy fur-clad, exquisitely groomed New Jersey lady, shopping for Christmas toys for her daughter in a Manhatten department store. Therese is the gamine but gently smouldering store clerk (they still said shop girl in 1952) on the doll counter, who directs who to her a train set instead. Therese preferred trains to dolls as a child. This might be a hint. Carol leaves without her gloves, and Therese returns them. There’s an invitation to lunch, then to her almost castellated suburban mansion. We discover that Carol is in the midst of divorce and a custody battle for her daughter with her husband Harge. It’s nearly Christmas. As an aside, that’s confusing. The thoughtful Therese checks with he store’s dispatch department that the train will be delivered by Christmas Eve. They say it has been delivered. There seem to be several days of imminent Christmas in the arguments over custody. We learn that her husband suspects, or rather knows, that Carol and her best friend Abbey have been more than just friends. Rows, altercations. That Christmas day hovers, but the child is whisked away for Christmas, and Carol is told she won’t get any custody because of her immoral behaviour (with Abby).
It’ll be a Lonely Christmas …
Now Carol is American. The classic thing to do when all is lost is to head West, in her case driving a fabulous Packard saloon. She invites Therese (who she hardly knows) to go with her, she accepts. The electrical tension in he air is palpable, both actresses filling the screen with pouting, little glances and so on. I think we all assumed that first night on the road they’d be at it like rabbits, but no, they book separate rooms at the first motel. A day later, in Ohio, they’re offered a suite cheap instead, and it is Therese who suggests they accept it but nothing happens. Then on to Chicago to the Drake Hotel – I expect the décor looked much the same then and now … Four Seasons Regency style. Sharing a suite again, having a lovely meal, passion hovering in the air. I suppose it’s meant to build up tension and demonstrate how far they were fighting their urges. It’s only in Waterloo, Iowa that the dressing gowns go on.Then off. A bit of trying out make up and perfume, then they finally get down to the long-anticipated naked writhing about scene.
In an Iowa motel. A make up party can so easily lead to other things …
But … they have been followed by a private detective employed by Harge. They’ve come out, but so has their secret. One more motel, even further West. Therese finds Carol gone in the morning, and Abby is waiting in the room to drive Therese and the Packard back to New Jersey. She must have flown out. It’s a task you’d only assign to someone you trusted totally. That Packard is lovely.
Then we have a coda of will they / won’t they get back together. Therese has made a career for herself as a photographer on the New York Times. There is a nice held ending and cut to silent black for a few seconds. The music, in the last scene in the Oak Room restaurant is magnificently passionate.
The recreation of the era (somewhere between 1948 and 1952) when Highsmith’s novel was set, is rich and detailed. Costumes, hair style, make up, room interiors. At one point I counted twenty cars of the era in a very short time. Yes, I was mildly bored at that point and we really saw a lot of cars and faces through rain covered car windows. There must have been dozens of vintage vehicles in the film, and I don’t suppose they were CGI. There were a few clunky low-loader shots in traffic too.
There’s a great deal of car window cinematography
The lead characters aren’t the only things smouldering in the film. The other re-creation of the era is that they outdo Mad Men on smoking. In other words, by Mad Men ten years later, people had actually cut down! Yes , everyone smoked, but given multiple takes I wondered how often Cate Blanchett had to light and inhale. No doubt, as on Mad Men, it was some herbal blend, but inhaling any burning substance is harmful – nicotine’s deadly role in the process is to keep you doing it. I just hoped that the cast had a break and toothbrush time between the smoking scenes and the snogging scenes.
(ADDED NOTE: thanks for the comment on Actor’s electronic cigarettes, which they probably were then! Nevertheless, it’s non stop. The Mad Men actors used herbal blends in the early series, and one said that most of them took up smoking again from the repeated actions.)
There is A LOT of smoking (and smouldering)
It garnered great reviews. It’s covered with five star ratings and accolades. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are contrasting in every way, and the audience can feel the interest, then the intrigue that builds into passion before the characters do. It’s a love story, as well as an insight into the era when such “immorality” was so unimaginable with women that the lawyers can hardly credit it. There’s a strong theme on gender, but it’s also a love story between a rich, powerful, older woman, probably Blanchett’s true mid-forties age, and a much younger, poorer woman. Rooney Mara is thirty in reality, but if we say the character of Therese is 21 or 22, no one is going to argue. It works. I think it would come across as seedier with a rich, powerful 45 year old man and a 21 year old woman, or two men. But whatever your orientation, the feeling of genuine romance, which, as in the best Mills & Boone template, gets thwarted at several stages before resolution, comes across. I admired the acting, the design, the music enormously. However the story, spread that far, doesn’t rate five star for me.
The Oscar nominations highlight an issue with a homosexual theme. Cate Blanchett is nominated for Best Actress, Rooney Mara for Best Supporting Actress. If this were a heterosexual romance, you’d say they were co-leads, and one would get Best Actor nomination, the other Best Actress. (Without being flippant, in the nude scene, Therese appears the passive partner.) If you look at the story which begins with Therese, and ends with Therese, and the romance mostly is seen from her viewpoint, you’d have to say that technically the “Best Actress” and “Best Supporting Actress” should be reversed. OK, that’s daft (a word that appears in the script … I’d thought it more British), but the Oscars’ diversity problems extend beyond the paucity of black nominees in 2016. Still, that’s why I chose the Rooney Mara poster for the top instead of the Cate Blanchett one. The Golden Globes as so often did better: both were nominated for Best Actress, and it was nominated for Best Motion Picture … it wasn’t in the Oscars. However, it didn’t win anything in the Globes.
On which, I thought Cate Blanchett deserved another Best Supporting Actress nomination as the fairy godmother in Kevin Branagh’s live action (with a lot of CGI) Cinderella. Every time I type ‘actress’ I’m reminded of Stephen Fry’s comment that he’s never met a female actor who is not offended by the term ‘actress.’ But that has never stopped any one of them accepting a ‘Best actress’ award.
Carol‘s other Oscar nominations were Best Original Score for Carter Burwell (also Golden Globes) and Best Cinematography for Ed Lachman.