Beginning with 1988's "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," a biopic which tackled body image issues and suburban family values using Barbie dolls, Todd Haynes has vacillated between postmodern reconfigurations of pop mythology ("Poison," "Velvet Goldmine," "I'm Not There") and navigating the embattled interiors of middle-to-upper-class white women stuck in the prison of patriarchal wealth ("Safe," "Far From Heaven," "Mildred Pierce"). In both, genre tends to precede humanity with an academic observation of curated footnotes, be it "Far From Heaven's" Douglas Sirk mashup or "Velvet Goldmine's" print-the-legend glam-rock musical.
Haynes' latest, "Carol," then, is a departure of sorts. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt," it charts the strained attempts at a Christmastime romance between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey housewife, and Therese (Rooney Mara), a precocious shopgirl, at the expense of the Eisenhower-era domestic fantasies laid out by the men in their lives.
From "Strangers on a Train" to the Thomas Ripley films, Highsmith adaptations are usually thrillers where a manipulative outsider derails a straight man's life with a strong homoerotic subtext. Here, the homosexuality is the film's open moral center, with surrounding hetero tradition doing the derailing, be it through custody battles or conversion therapy. With queer love ascribed an amoral criminality by social norms, merely having the relationship refracts the cinematic tropes of the paranoid ramp up to the Cold War era without relying on them: the shadowy intrigue of, say, Cold War espionage shading the contours of an illicit affair; the use of coded affectation—from a tender grip on the shoulder to a set of put-on mannerisms required to blend in with upper-class squares—plays as its own subversive rearrangement of class/gender boundaries.
In Haynes' films, characters usually flit about, barely aware of the surrounding machinations, but Carol, finally, is a bit more lived in and fleshed out, with a semblance of long-denied agency, perhaps something Haynes picked up after giving "Mildred Pierce" room to breathe by stretching that story into a five-hour miniseries for HBO. Blanchett plays Carol with a stiff upper lip whose palimpsest is quivering despair, showing Therese the ropes of both lesbian and socialite womanhood—and harboring a barely masked desperation to escape the latter; Mara plays the orphaned Therese's ascendance with a sheltered naivete. Interiors are shot from the outside through dirty windows, kitchens and living rooms from adjacent corridors, restaurant booths from nearby tables, amplifying the public scrutiny under which private lives are trying to operate.
To some extent, it's simple and almost safe to a fault. Haynes occasionally uses speeches from Eisenhower to mark larger political shifts, with his inaugural "abhorring war. . . promote the conditions of peace" address arriving with wicked irony as Carol's custody battle takes its toll. Yet, given that the particular oppression tackled here exists in a hermetically sealed, virtually segregated universe, that sort of big-picture gimmickry only highlights the lack of scope instead of adding some. This isn't necessarily a problem; "Far From Heaven" reduced segregation to a white woman's burden so perhaps it's best that Haynes stay in one lane. Besides, much of what works in "Carol" is the large ripple effects of small gestures. Carol describes Therese as "flung from space," and as a cosmic conflagration that sets their Rockwell-painted 1950s ablaze with the promise of better worlds, mere suggestion feels like its own rip in the universe.
"Carol," directed by Todd Haynes, is now playing at the Charles Theater.