Hymn of an Unconventional Love

Phyllis Nagy

Todd Haynes

Movie Review
Carol:Of an Unconventional Love

..Of an Unconventional Love
Patricia Highsmith

  ‘Carol’ is based on the novel, ‘The Price of Salt’ written by Patricia Highsmith (left), who initially had to get it published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan as her earlier publishers, Harper & Brothers, rejected it on the grounds that it wasn’t her “genre.” In 1990, Highsmith published the book again under her own name, but this time titling it, ‘Carol.’

Set in the New York of 1952, it is an emotional account of the inexplicable attraction a young woman, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) working as a salesgirl in a toy store, feels for one of the customers, an older woman Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) who comes to the store to buy a Christmas present for her young daughter. She leaves her gloves behind accidentally and Therese looks up her address from the store receipt and mails them to her. Carol calls to thank her and subsequently, they meet for lunch over which Carol, who is going through a divorce, invites Therese home for Christmas. Here, Therese meets Rindy, Carol’s little daughter. Unexpectedly, Harge (Kyle Chandler) Carol’s husband, lands up and is suspicious of Therese because Carol had briefly had a lesbian relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) some years before.

Depressed and stressed over the divorce, Carol decides to go on a long road trip and asks Therese to accompany her. Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) now accuses her of having a crush on Carol and the two break up. During the trip, the two women acknowledge their feelings for each other and end up making love. This puts Carol on the defensive in her divorce suit and she has to compromise on Rindi’s custody with Harge.  

Post-divorce, Carol then gets in touch with Therese again…

The story is somewhat autobiographical, as Highsmith has admitted in an afterword to her book that Therese is based on her own character. Such an encounter in a store (Bloomingdale’s) did indeed occur. Into this tale, Highsmith has deftly woven the unhappy experience her former lover – a socialite by the name of Virginia Kent Catherwood - underwent of being faced with a divorce case in which she lost custody of her child due to their relationship.

Full marks to director Todd Haynes for handling the lovemaking scene between the two actresses with sensitivity as well as sensuality. Given the subject, the scene was required to show the intensity of the commitment between the women and I am quite awestruck at how matter-of-factly both the actors have handled this element in the movie.
(The Reviewer has watched this film in Bangkok. In India how much of this has been censored is to be seen).  

According to reports, Highsmith was never confident that this book could be developed well as a film, on account of its “intense, subjective point of view.” Fortunately, Phyllis Nagy, the screenplay writer, was a friend of Highsmith and was able to receive her inputs while remaining true to the book. Certain elements have of course been changed to maintain a cinematic versus reading pace. For instance, in the book Therese does not return gloves but rather, sends Carol a Christmas card and she is not a photographer, but a set designer. In the movie, Therese actually gets to meet the little girl, Rindy. Dramatically, the cinematic Carol comes across as flirtatious and quite overt.

The book has been an engrossing read, which is more than can be said of the movie that has a somewhat tedious beginning. Paradoxically, the ending is so abrupt that it is more like watching a documentary, except that the audience is not even left with the sop of a soft fade-out. Affonso Goncalves as editor has been rather jerky with his moods. Cinematography (Edward Lachman) is harsh and glaring at times while the background score (Carter Burwell) tends to get mournful. Costume designer Sandy Powell has done a splendid job; Carol is perfectly respectably turned out, as a high-society lady of the fifties should be and so are Harge, Abby and the rest of the cast.

Casting (Laura Rosenthal) is fairly spot-on; Chandler was an admirable choice to play Harge and brings out the bewilderment and frustration of his character with ease. If we were to discuss the two female protagonists, then Mara is soft and defenceless like a little kitten, all big questioning eyes and an air of frailty and yet, she is bold and avant-garde in her love. Blanchett, on the other hand, can do hard and aggressive and comes across as the domineering butch partner quite well; what she can’t carry off is the requisite softness a role like this sometimes demands, although she does project vulnerability in the scene where she asks Therese to move in with her. I suppose Rosenthal had her limits, given that Blanchett is executive producer on the movie! Overall, Mara walks away with the audience sympathy; not entirely surprisingly, she tied for the Best Actress award at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The fact that ‘Carol’ did not make it to the Best Picture or Best Director categories at the Academy Awards brought forth vociferous criticism from the media on the organisation’s bias toward LGBT-centric subjects.

The book rights were acquired in 1996 and yet, the movie took fairly long to make, running into snags chief among which was the fact that this was based on a lesbian - as opposed to a gay - relationship. The script is fairly true to the book, with Nagy having written five drafts and fine-tuning it with Haynes. Certainly, the blame for the weak ending cannot be laid at the scriptwriter’s door; at best, the director and the editor both faltered in their vision here. Nonetheless, ‘Carol’ remains a must-watch for the finesse that the director as well as the cast have brought to this unconventional love story.

   Punam Mohandas

Punam Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.

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