Dry as a martini and as perfectly composed as a Christmas card, “Carol” is is the gay “Far From Heaven,” if that’s not redundant, another tale of “forbidden love” amid the polished Packards and crisp fashion lines of the 1950s.
Austere in its longing and soapy in its romantic sentiments, it benefits from a lovely, considered performance by Cate Blanchett and nicely understated work by Rooney Mara.
And if it generates little heat or longing between its characters and their relationship, at least some of that can be written off to its era and the once-notorious source novel. Patricia Highsmith (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”) wrote “The Price of Salt” in an age when when homosexuality was still called “the love that dare not speak its name.”
They meet at the toy department in a New York department store. It’s 1952, the terms “gaydar” hadn’t been coined. But when the immaculately turned-out Carol Aird (Blanchett) turns her posh locutions on shop girl Therese Belivet (Rooney), the younger woman picks up on…something.
Carol is shopping for a Christmas gift for her little girl. The shop girl recommends a toy train set, adds that it can be delivered. There’s a name and an address as part of that transaction. The suggestion, a “boy’s toy” for a little girl in the “I Like Ike” age? Another signal.
Conveniently, Carol forgets her gloves. Therese sends them with the train. And next thing you know, they’re meeting for martinis and creamed spinach, talking in code, looking each other over.
Carol is going through a divorce, and she has history. Her rich husband (Kyle Chandler) knows about her women.
Therese is an aspiring photographer, and is being courted by Richard (Jake Lacy of “Love the Coopers) who wants to take her to Europe, and flirted-with by others.
Director Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” “I’m Not There”) makes much of the naivete of the era. Even in New York, there are New Yorkers too young or unworldly to know that there are women attracted to other women. Even the educated and sophisticated — lawyers, psychotherapists — wonder about phases, “crushes” and cures. Therese’s young men don’t even know what this is called.
Blanchett’s take on the title character feels filtered through the lens of gay icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Carol is regal, imperious, spoiled and guarded.
“Just when you think it can’t get any worse,” she grouses, striking another perfect pose, “you run out of cigarettes!”
The leads seem drawn together by mutual appreciation of beauty. Therese is inexperienced, put off by the butch lesbians she spies in parties, who also give her the once-over. But the chaste “chase” of the Carol-Therese courtship just adds to the feeling that this is missing a sense of real attraction and longing.
It’s far easier to believe that every guy in their orbit is somehow blind to the fact that he’s getting nowhere with this gorgeous woman who may be forced to be passive by the times, but who cannot muster the simplest feelings for him. And that is hard to swallow in itself. It helps to think of Lacy’s resemblance to Ben Affleck and remember “Chasing Amy” in those fruitless flirtations.
It might have been a coming-of-age story (Highsmith would never have had that), or as some gay columnists have suggested, an “initiation” tale. But it isn’t. Haynes never lifts “Carol” above over-dressed melodrama. And with every perfect bar where every perfect martini is served, every perfect dive of a motel on the “Lolita” roadtrip that the “just friends” abruptly take together, “Carol” betrays its true priorities.
We’re here for the drinks, the fashions and the smokes, not smokey looks and not passion.
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro
Credits: Directed by Todd Haynes, script by Phyllis Nagy, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel. A Weinstein Co. release.
Running time: 1:50