Highsmith, Haynes, Blanchett. For moviegoers of a certain contrarian disposition, those three names attached to an upcoming film are all they need to know to anticipate a rewarding time in the dark.
First and foremost is Patricia Highsmith, the sublimely unhappy author of the Ripley series, Strangers on a Train, The Cry of the Owl, and numerous other downbeat literary properties turned into suspenseful films. Indie writer-director Todd Haynes has specialized in melodramatic explorations of sexual-cultural role-playing, including Far from Heaven, the Bob Dylan tribute I'm Not There, and the TV mini-series remake of Mildred Pierce. His early short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a hysterically "tragic" celebrity bio using Barbie dolls as actors, remains a cult classic. Meanwhile actress Cate Blanchett, a veteran of various Highsmith and Haynes projects, is probably the movie world's most compelling portrayer of histrionically agitated characters.
Haynes' new release Carol, a twisted soap opera for urban cineastes, unites all three of these combustible creative personalities. And if it's not exactly the triumph it intends to be, at least it gives us discreet samples of the emotional turmoil and careless carnality many of us crave at this time of year, while other audiences are filing into multiplexes in search of reassuring romances and animated bedtime stories.
In the prim 1950s, in a meticulously staged Manhattan, shy, unfulfilled Therese Belivet works as a retail clerk in Frankenberg's department store, selling toys to distracted housewives during the Christmas season. Dark-haired, wide-eyed Therese, as played by Rooney Mara, belongs to the same meek and mousey sorority as the young Audrey Hepburn (whom she closely resembles), in that all she needs in order to blossom into full radiance is to fall in love.
She does, in a way. Therese is spotted in the store by Carol Aird (Blanchett), a sophisticated suburban matron with a rich husband she hates (Kyle Chandler) and a jaded eye for unspoiled innocence. If Mara's Therese is a virginal Hepburnian nymph, the bitter, vulpine Carol assumes the Lauren Bacall part, circa 1950's Young Man with a Horn. Carol absent-mindedly purchases an electric train from Therese, but the ride she really wants to take with her new friend is a road trip to the deepest Midwest, where no one knows them. Before long they're both in "morality clause" territory, the same general Eisenhower-era bind Haynes visited in Far from Heaven. The Squaresville Fifties doesn't understand two women, one of them a respectable wife and mother, playing footsies in motel rooms. Therese doesn't really grasp her admirer, either. The only person who knows exactly what she wants is Carol.
Blanchett and Mara fit their parts well. The paneled cocktail lounges, the Billie Holiday records, Therese's movie critic boyfriend (John Magaro), short cigarettes, Carol's confidante/servant Abby (Sarah Paulson); Therese's flair for photography (she might turn out to be Vivian Maier!) — Haynes' vision of the era captures the repressed sensuality as well as the open hostility. But we don't get much satisfaction out of witnessing this particular Highsmith predator closing in for the kill. The blood runs cold. Even their orgasms are smothered.
There have been better Patricia Highsmith fictions. There have been better Todd Haynes movies. There have been better Cate Blanchett roles. There probably have not been any better Rooney Mara acting jobs — we finally "get" her, just in time for her appearance in the new Terence Malick. Final score: 3-1. Carol loses.