This movie may have been nominated for six Academy Awards -- none of which it won, but I must confess I didn't much like it. Thinking about this I remembered that I didn't reckon Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning turn in "Blue Jasmine", one of the seven Oscar nominations she's received, including one for the above film. and I think my main problem is with the actress herself.
She won best supporting actress for "The Aviator" which was an ever-so brief impersonation of Katherine Hepburn (big deal) and was also nominated for her two "Elizabeth" films, "Notes on Scandal", and "I'm not There". I wasn't taken with any of these performances. I would not dream of questioning her acting chops which verge on the formidable, but I find her characterizations cold and bloodless. Like her Hepburn turn she comes across as impersonating the characters she plays, rather than inhabiting them. There's a kind of 'look-at-me' show-off feel to all of them. Even her Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies remains lifeless. I wish I knew what all the fuss is about.
In this movie she plays a bored, rich wife on the edge of divorce who takes up with shop-girl Rooney Mara (also Oscar-nominated, but for best supporting actress, although her role is on a par with Blanchett's). A full-blooded lesbian affair develops, and one suspects that part of the reason the pair both received nominations was for one 'brave' and fairly graphic lesbian scene; however this was in no way as erotic as some of the action in "The Handmaiden" which I reviewed last week. The chemistry between the two main characters never felt quite convincing, with Blanchett's Carol just looking for an escape from the nasty details of her pending divorce and Rooney's Therese letting herself drift into a new experience -- something of an exit from her humdrum existence. That deeper feelings developed from this in both of them remains a little unconvincing.
The only other female character, Carol's best friend Sarah Paulsen with whom she indeed had a lesbian relationship previously, is somewhat underplayed and all of the male characters are largely ciphers. Kyle Chandler plays Carol's husband as a vindictive drunk eager to get full custody of their child on a morals clause. The daughter in question is something of a red herring and Carol's professed love for the child never rings completely true; she wants joint custody but not at the expense of her own whims.
Of rather greater interest than the movie is the backstory of the novel on which it is based. Respected novelist Patricia Highsmith was advised by her publishes that a lesbian love-story, purportedly semi-autobiographical, would be career suicide, so "The Price of Salt" was published in 1952 under a pseudonym. It then fell out of print until the 80s when a Sapphic publishing house offered Highsmith one sum to re-publish under the real author's name or a lesser sum to re-publish it under the previous pen-name. It did not then appear as a Highsmith novel, now renamed "Carol" until 1990, towards the end of the author's life.
The 50's atmosphere is nicely invoked through the film's nominated set design and costuming, but the story could have played out just as well in another period. It's interesting that there was no Oscar nomination for director Todd Haynes, who rather more movingly directed Julianne Moore in another period forbidden love affair, 2002's "Far From Heaven". He may be a virtuoso woman's director, but "Carol" is the less involving of the two films.
Although the viewer is left hanging at the end of this film, it is pretty clear that the two main characters will find some kind of future together. Interestingly enough "The Price of Salt" is the only Highsmith work with a relatively happy ending -- one that the author might have wished for herself at the time in her disguise as the Therese character.