Film review: Carol – A dazzling portrayal of forbidden love

Mark Reynolds 

Cate Blanchett stars in Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s seminal novel about a wealthy but discontented housewife who embarks on a passionate, identity-affirming affair with a shopgirl.

In 1950s New York, Carol Aird (Blanchett) is a woman with grave doubts about continuing in a marriage to bewildered but besotted husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) to whom she feels little attachment. The daughter they have together brings her deep joy, but theirs was always a marriage of convenience; of fitting in with the expectations of a buttoned-up post-war society in which only those who play by establishment’s rules will prosper.

Harge knows that Carol had a meaningful fling with her best friend Abby before their marriage, but had convinced himself those errant days were over. As they face up to the public shame and private turmoil of divorce, Carol’s true nature is reignited by an instant spark with Rooney Mara’s bright but directionless department store salesgirl Therese.

“The genius of Highsmith’s seminal early novel was to confront a blinkered society with the reality that living according to your own calling is a truer path than simply fitting in.”

With winter taking a grip, Carol and Therese make a snap decision to go on a road trip across the Midwest. But their days of freedom, self-expression and deepening passion are cut short when they discover that Harge has put a private investigator on their tail.

The brutal fallout of the marital break-up is heart-rending, and for a spell a purposed pragmatism in the face of legal and social pressures points towards uneasy compromise. But the genius of Highsmith’s seminal early novel—published under a pseudonym for most of her lifetime due to its defiant candour about same-sex passion—was to confront a blinkered society with the reality that living according to your own calling is a truer path than simply fitting in.

Image via Carol

This confused era of hope and restraint is superbly rendered by director Todd Haynes, cinematographer Ed Lachman and their team of costume and set designers and by the spare language, pregnant pauses and broken thoughts that heighten every moment of anger, doubt and frustration.

From the film’s framing in an approximation of the era’s 35mm film stock to the muted colour palate, a fabulous score peppered with hits and incidental songs from the period, and astonishing performances from all the main players, this is an utterly compelling drama about how we lived then, and a timeless story about following your heart and taking a stand against intolerance and prejudice.


Carol is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 27 November

Browse our collection of films starring Cate Blanchett in our online shop

Read our review of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Carol, by Lucy Scholes