Carol was never meant for the screen. Patricia Highsmith was infamously cynical about the film adaptations of her books, so if she had it her way a film version of her lesbian love story never would have come to be. The novel the movie is based upon, originally published in 1952 as The Price of Salt under the psuedonym Claire Morgan, is told through the perspective of a nineteen-year-old aspiring set designer called Therese, and Highsmith was concerned that the story’s intense and narrow focalisation wouldn’t translate well to screen.
Highsmith may have also been protective of her novel because it’s semi-autobiographical. The scene in which Therese meets the brilliantly charming Carol in the doll section of a huge department store was inspired by the author’s actual experience working in a toyshop to earn extra money for expensive psychoanalysis sessions aimed at curbing her own homosexuality. As a side note, if Highsmith ever got around to these sessions, they were dismally unsuccessful – the author admitted she fell in love with women throughout her life ‘more times than rats have orgasms’. While working at the store, Highsmith had a memorable encounter with a woman who was ‘blondish and seemed to give off light’. Hence, the character of Carol was born.
Both the novel and the movie follow the story of Therese falling into instant adoration of Carol, and the two women, both unsatisfied to varying degrees with the men in their lives, begin to orbit each other in a strange, awkward, obsessive way. They seek each other out in dim restaurants and along the snow-swept streets of pre-Christmas Manhattan after Therese has finished her miserable shifts at the department store. Carol is in the midst of a divorce and custody battle over her daughter that soon turns nasty; it’s unclear whether the endlessly charismatic Carol has more than a fleeting interest in Therese and is just using her as a distraction from her suddenly lonely life. When the two go away on holiday together, however, their love truly blossoms – but of course, heartbreak is tailgating them the whole way, eventually overtaking their passionate escape and returning them abruptly to the harshness of 1950’s conservatism.
The movie is faithful to the book except for the minor, ingenious adjustment of Therese’s ambition – in the film she’s an amateur photographer rather than a set-designer. And Highsmith needn’t have been worried about her story being botched on screen. The screenplay, written by Phyllis Nagy, who was a close friend of Highsmith, is perfectly restrained and skilfully realised by director Todd Haynes. Rooney Mara, known for starring in the American version of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, delivers a flawless performance as the wide-eyed, guileless girl caught up in the awe and soaring happiness of first love. Cate Blanchett is luminous, brilliant, and utterly magnetic. She plays the charismatic, striking, seemingly indifferent but achingly lonesome title character with a confidence and skill that imbues the film with an integrity that will make it one of the finest releases this year. The cinematography is exquisite. Carol will be the best acted, most beautifully shot movie of the year, and one that does credit to the incredible woman who was brave enough to publish an honest story of lesbian love at a time when she knew she would be vilified, and optimistic enough to ensure it was a tale of hope.