Carol – Film Review

Cate Blanchett is the go-to girl for troubled female leads, and well suited is she to the title role.  Few female leads, save possibly Lady Macbeth, come more troubled than Carol, the protagonist in this eponymous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s daring novel, The Price of Salt.

Sixty-odd years ago, repressed sexuality or not, it was the duty of men, and even more so women, to conform to the strait-jacket of social normality.  Ask anyone and you would be told: single parenthood and Sapphic desires are things that just didn’t exist. Not that anyone would dare ask, of course.   So it’s all the more remarkable that the story is not just a bestselling novel since publication, but has been adapted lately for radio and now the big screen.

The opening shots set the scene exquisitely.  The New York winter of 1951 has bustle enough, but Manhattan is not the frenetic place it is today.  There’s an air of polite indifference, and empathy is unknown to that brash, self-centred New York attitude, even if it still says please and thank you.

This isn’t entry-level Highsmith – reference The Talented Mr Ripley for that.  Carol is more master’s thesis is in malevolent undertones, than outright, head-splitting shock.

That Cincinnati slips so easily into the guise of early fifties New York tells you all you need to know about Ohio’s principal city.  It’s from here that a better dressed and better spoken Thelma and Louise set on a road trip in a Packard Super 8 Deluxe, white wall tyres and all – though expect no desert car chases and cliff top denouement, the dramatic climax is much more subtle than that, though just as devastating in its own way…

There are perhaps a dozen more tales that any moderately well-read viewer could rattle off.  All good enough works in themselves, but all derivative or inspired by Highsmith’s  pen.  Slow and methodical, there’s anger seething under its well pressed collar.  When it does momentarily boil over, it’s all the more shocking in the anticipation of what may transpire.

In that way, it does take an age for worldly-wise Carol to seduce her angelic young swain, and when it does happen, it’s ambiguous as to just who is leading who.  It’s evident to anyone with eyes that co-lead Rooney Mara is the girl without a dragon tattoo anywhere on her body, but her character is every bit as emotionally compromised as her breakthrough performance in that role.  Then again, emotionally compromised is the hallmark of Highsmith’s writing, brought eloquently to screen here.

With a final flourish, that famously twists and turns, Carol does and doesn’t get what she wanted all along.  What we get in the end is the knowledge that the price of salt is indeed an ocean of tears.

Cert 15, directed by Todd Haynes UK release 27 November 2015.

 

 

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