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At times during Carol, Todd Haynes’ film adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel, Rooney Mara strikingly recalls Audrey Hepburn. She is captivating throughout and, judged on celluloid charisma alone, deserves a prize for being one of the very few who can outshine the impeccably beautiful Cate Blanchett on screen.

Both the aforementioned actors deliver excellent performances; Phyllis Nagy’s script is skillfully sparse and witty (Nagy, a friend of Highsmith’s, has been trying to get the project made for some time); Ed Lachman’s cinematography is both gorgeous and melancholic, the perfect blend of Edward Hopper and William Eggleston, all kitsch-tinted Americana and rain-smeared Buick windows. It’s true, Carter Burwell’s score is rather drab, but mostly everything’s in place. Yet despite all that, the movie dragged and fails to invest the audience in the story.

Mara is great as Therese, an unusual girl stuck with a dull department store job and an even duller boyfriend, the type who always feels alone in a crowd. She doesn’t seem to have ever considered an attraction to women until the older, glamorous Carol Aird (Blanchett) comes into the shop to buy her daughter a Christmas present. It’s love at first sight.

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Complicated by her jealous husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) whom she is currently divorcing, Carol’s sexuality becomes a weapon in legal manipulations that threaten both women’s hopes of happiness, already slim in conservative ‘50s America, but the stakes somehow never seem sufficiently high.

The second act is an almost endless road trip, culminating in a sex scene that presumably we should have been breathlessly awaiting but instead feels remarkably flat. Highsmith’s original, published in 1952 under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt, cleverly structured the lesbian love story like the thrillers she would become famous for. The film suffers from the lack of the author’s control and psychological insight.

Maybe it’s just physics, as one character says to Therese when discussing the mystery of attraction, and Mara and Blanchett just don’t have chemistry, despite strong performances. More likely Haynes has relied on sumptuous period detail and a skillful cast and crew, rather than giving the story the taut visual structure and editing it required. Whatever the reason, this story of a forbidden all-consuming love trying to survive in a repressive society never really touches the heart.

Words by AC Goodall

Carol screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 14th, 15th and 17th October.