Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, Carol is a continuation and refinement of Todd Haynes’s signature concerns, slotting into his filmography like a wintry, understated cousin to Far from Heaven. While the normative forces of society once again threaten a burgeoning love affair, this time around it’s the wistful glances, passing touches, and wordless complicity of love itself that take center stage.
It’s Christmas 1952 and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a smart, unassuming wannabe photographer, is making ends meet by working at an upmarket department store. One customer cannot help but catch her eye: the older, married Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who follows her sales suggestions without hesistation and just happens to leave her gloves on the counter as she walks off. The return of the items ushers in a lunch, which in turn ushers in drinks at Aird’s country house, with Carol’s angry, soon-to-be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), the only real fly in the ointment. The growing attraction between Carol and Therese is never verbalized, but rather emerges with organic grace in gazes and gestures. The most ravishing example of this comes when Carol drives Therese to her estate for the first time, Therese’s eye wandering across the landscape of Carol’s face as the car enters a tunnel, its gleaming lights illuminating and obscuring Blanchett’s smile in equal measure, before one immaculately gloved finger presses the necessary button and the strings on the soundtrack merge with the song that now starts up on the car radio.