Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson

Director Todd Haynes has done it again with this beautiful, tense and emotional film – tapping into the mid-20th century to create an immediate and riveting story. His 2002 film Far from Heaven and his 2011 miniseries Mildred Pierce both displayed this specific talent. Now, his version of Patricia Highsmith’s shocking 1953 lesbian love story The Price of Salt is turned into brilliant cinema about forbidden love, strong women, and sexual politics.

Not only is the film’s photography and 1950s style rich and alluring. Blanchett and Mara both deliver simmering, strained performances worthy of the highest praise.

There is already talk of another Oscar nomination (and possible win) for Cate Blanchett. Sandy Powell's costuming is perfection.

There is already talk of another Oscar nomination (and possible win) for Cate Blanchett. Sandy Powell’s costuming is perfection.

In 1950s New York City, Mara is Therese Belevit, a shop girl who dreams of becoming a professional photographer. While working, Therese meets Carol Aird (Blanchett) a well-to-do suburbanite in the middle of a nasty divorce from Chandler, still negotiating custody of their young daughter. The sexual tension starts immediately between Therese and Carol. The problem isn’t just that lesbianism is considered immoral, and Carol would do anything to maintain contact with her child. Mara herself seems to be on the edge of getting engaged; she’s not sure what she wants, in life or in relationships.

These complications launch a protracted, romantic dance. Each of the women carefully ferrets out the other’s orientation. Meanwhile, they must maintain perfect public personas, to avoid scrutiny – perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect dress – posing against door frames,expertly waving around cigarettes, carefully composing themselves in restaurants.

Haynes takes his time with all this, in a lovely, nerve-wracking, and delightfully melodramatic way. He uses Therese’s photography, window reflections, and mirrors to represent the women’s struggle for public poise. Carol is a film absolutley comfortable with the pressure it slowly, methodically builds over two hours.

Director Todd Haynes is masterful at making the past immediately relevant, even within the guise of melodrama.

Director Todd Haynes is masterful at making the past immediately relevant, even within the guise of melodrama.

Mara’s ingénue performance is intriguing, watching how she mirrors the older woman, and then later how she defines her own style, her own self. Blanchett turns in another career-defining performance – Carol hiding her fears, doubts, and emotions under a steely, stylish façade that is often hard to read.

Haynes has the ability to find the deep, moving truth behind such melodrama. This is his great talent, reminding us why these heightened emotions often leave us enrapt. That’s what made Far From Heaven – where a ‘50s housewife struggles with her husband’s homosexuality and her own longing for a black gardener – so wonderful. His five-hour mini-series Mildred Pierce movingly portrayed a divorced woman torn between independence and providing her daughter luxuries.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Besides that and the brilliant performances, there’s the rich art direction by Jesse Rosenthal (American Hustle). Oscar-winning costumer Sandy Powell (Aviator, Shakespeare in Love) goes to town. Composer Carter Burwell (Fargo) may finally snag an Oscar nomination.

Haynes always concentrates on women’s stories – their strengths, and their societal limitations – in a way that makes his period films timelessly relevant. Until coming out is considered normal, easy, and moral, lovely films like Carol (like Brokeback Mountain and Beautiful Thing before it) will show us both the beauty and the pain.

Share this story: