Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is at a restaurant with Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) when she is approached by an old friend who strikes up a conversation with her, and invites her to a party that evening. In fact, if she wants she can go with him, he can offer her a lift, which she accepts, as Carol bids them farewell and leaves, but on the journey Therese stares out of the car window and ponders her relationship with the older woman. They met when she was working at a toy department in a New York City store, and Carol, after discussing what to buy for her young daughter, left her address and also her gloves, which Therese contacted her to return. However, there was a spark of interest in other things between them, and they knew they wanted to get to know one another...
Patricia Highsmith was best known for her novels in the thriller medium, but she penned more literary works as well, and The Price of Salt was one of them, though with its lesbian theme she was reluctant to admit ownership in the repressed climate of America of the nineteen-fifties, indeed it took a long time after for her to come out and say, yes, that one was mine. By that stage it had been a bestseller, certainly for a story with what could be perceived as belonging to a niche market, and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted it into a screenplay that took over a decade to be brought to the screen, perhaps indicative of how there remained a repression in its society, or more likely because it takes ages for pretty much anything to be filmed now.
But it did enjoy quite some success as a movie in spite of a chilly and austere mood, and that was down to sensitive performances from the two leads and very controlled direction from Todd Haynes, who had tried out the fifties setting before with his Douglas Sirk tribute Far From Heaven. Not that this was a carbon copy only with different characters, as he employed an appreciably different technique; it may have been designed to within an inch of its life to evoke the era, but it didn't look much like the earlier film otherwise, as involving as it became. If there was an issue, it was that as a narrative it didn’t make up its mind which of the lovers was the main character, so it wasn't either about the young woman trembling on the brink of lesbianism, or the older woman's desires sabotaging her life.
It wavered between them both, though if pushed you would call it Therese’s story more than Carol, only it was the latter's name on the titles. Blanchett gave a very good account of herself, coming across as a stylish woman about town who has everything sorted out, then allowing us to see the chinks in her armour as it grows clear she is in great turmoil, and maybe shouldn't have embarked on the affair at all. She is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and he is determined to stop her getting custody of their daughter since he is all too aware of her homosexuality, considering that a bad influence on the child. What's worse is that the law is on his side, and Carol is aware of that. So what pushes her into loving Therese? We never find that out, she doesn't appear particularly impulsive, that she would be willing to lose control of her life, yet nevertheless pursues the younger woman, though that could be down to her interest being reciprocated.
There was a delicacy here that informed the drama, so every touch of the hand spoke silent volumes, making it all the more extraordinary that Carol and Therese find such common ground in a society hostile to their affection. When they both go on a road trip after Christmas, the feeling they are getting away from it all to be free to express themselves should have been the result, but in effect they simply become more paranoid, in spite of consummating their love, or maybe that has only increased the pressure. Happily, what looked like heading for Brokeback Mountain territory, where being gay is equivalent to being frustrated and miserable, was unexpectedly avoided in an ending that was ambiguous but hopeful; if only they hadn't confused the matter by failing to find a focus to stick with, this could have been a real classic. Though as it was, it was very good, proving that a sympathetic approach can be the simplest yet most effective method of finding universality in what could have been a niche subject. Music by Carter Burwell.
Intriguing American arthouse writer-director whose student film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story created a big fuss, and is still banned to this day. The episodic Poison was a disappointing follow up, but Safe was heralded as a triumph. His document of glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, wasn't as well received, however Far From Heaven, a 1950's-set melodrama, was Oscar-nominated, as was the similarly-set romance Carol. In between those were an offbeat take on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, and a miniseries of Mildred Pierce.