Unlike the sentimental melodrama ‘Brooklyn’, director Todd Haynes has fashioned a more salacious tale based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ (later named ‘Carol’).
Like his predecessor, Douglas Sirk, the grandmaster of the 1950s melodrama, you can always rely on Haynes to deliver the goods in terms of brilliant cinematography, bravura acting (this time provided by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) as well as a production design that magnificently recreates the heady days of the early 1950s, just as Dwight D. Eisenhower ascends the ‘throne’ of the American presidency for the first time. Despite all the positives, why then is ‘Carol’ simply average and mediocre to boot?
When Highsmith’s novel was released in 1952, a lesbian romance was considered to be scandalous. Indeed, when the film’s protagonist, Carol Aird, begins a lesbian affair with sales girl Therese Belivet, the villain of the piece, Carol’s rather pathetic husband, Harge, invokes a ‘morality clause’, permitting him to gain full custody of the couple’s young daughter, Rindy, without the possibility of Carol having any visitation rights.
Carol’s ensuing decision to get away from it all and inviting Therese on a sensual whirlwind of a cross-country car trip may have been shocking for 1950s readers, but today it feels like old hat. We’re supposed to get excited about the two lovers’ intense desire for one another but what’s so original about a lesbian romance? It’s simply not enough to hang your hat on for an entire movie. True, at the midpoint, there is a welcome plot twist involving Harge who hires a private investigator to tape record Carol and Therese as they make love in the presidential suite of a cheap motel.
But what happens after that? Spoilers incoming.
Carol goes back to Harge but eventually (wouldn’t you know it?) is unable to shake her love and lust for dear Therese, and it’s postulated at the climax that indeed they will once again reunite.
The uninspiring ending which really needed some kind of extraordinary twist ends with the two lovers staring at one another in a fancy hotel restaurant, as the screen fades to black in a disappointing lack of creativity. I suppose the non-stop ‘passion’ between the two principals is what has seduced both critics and the average film-goer alike into declaring that this is some kind of masterpiece. But in reality Mr. Haynes should be applauded only for creating an impressive atmosphere—mere attraction (no matter how intense it is), is not enough for us to care about characters that are in need of much more detailed development.