New York in the fifties, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) works as a clerk in a toy shop of a Frankenberg department store where Carol Aird is doing some christmas shopping. After exchanging some fleeting parting glances Carol (Cate Blanchett) shows up at Therese’s counter. The doll she wanted to buy for her daughter is out of stock, so she ends up buying an electrical train set instead. Carol writes down her personal information on a salesslip for the trainset to be delivered to her residence in time for christmas. A little later Therese notices Carol’s hand gloves -which she left there (accidentally?)- on the counter. Therese takes the gloves home and sends them privately via the post to Carol’s home address.
This is the start of the most subtle of love stories between 2 women of different ages and completely different social backgrounds. During a scene in the begining of the film Therese and some friends are watching Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) from a projection-booth. One of the young boys declares it is the sixth time he’s watching the film, this time he’ll be focusing on the correlation of what the characters are saying versus wath they are really feeling. This could be considered the verbalisation of the approach screenwriter Phillis Nagy had when adapting the Patricia Highsmith (writer of o.a. Strangers on a train, The Ripley novels and Two Faces of January) novel ‘The Price of Salt‘. The novel in which Highsmith used autobiographical elements was first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Only in 1990 towards the end of her life the novel was rereleased under her own name, retitled as Carol.
The scenes in the toy store amidst the toy dolls could be seen as a reference to Haynes’ very own medium length film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988), a film that’s forbidden/illegal to be shown due to a lawsuit but which you can easily find on Youtube. Hayness used music from The Carpenters without permission but it is said that the real reason the film has been boycotted by the Carpenter family is due to the fact that the film portrays the brother Richard Carpenter as a homosexual. The film deals with Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia nervosa, a battle she lost in 1983. What makes the film special is that it is filmed using Ken and Barbie dolls. The idea of using Ken and Barbie dolls to tell a story about an anorexia patient is a particularly brilliant one.
Director Todd Haynes and DoP Ed Lachman decided to shoot the film in 16 mm which leads to a colorful somewhat grainy look. For the visual look of the film they’ve declared they were influenced by photographers such as Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, Esther Bubley, Ruth Orkin and Helen Levitt.
The framing device in which an annoying character interrupts an important emotional conversation is clearly a nod to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945).
The film is so subtle and the period recreation so lavishing in all of its detail there’s a risk the underplaying of the passion and the emphasis on visual beauty may result in keeping the audience at a distance. There are a lot of minute details and unspoken emotions you’ll have to pick up on to be able to fully enjoy this film.