When a beautiful middle-aged woman leaves her leather gloves on the counter of a New York department store, it forms a small but pivotal moment in the life of a young sales assistant and sparks an intriguing new friendship. Rooney Mara plays Therese, the quirky, Santa-hat sporting shop girl and Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous object of her attentions in Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. Therese is a young woman who doesn’t seem to know what she wants in life and yet appears to have it all – looks, her own apartment, the prospect of a better job as a newspaper photographer and a handsome boyfriend who dotes on her – yet she’s indifferent to her appearance, itches to paint the flat, lacks the confidence to pursue her dream job and blatantly ignores her sexually frustrated wannabe-fiancé. Carol, too, seems to have it all (with money to boot), but each woman wants what the other has – youth’s boundless freedom and potential, and maturity’s confidence and wisdom. These are two free-spirited women in a conservative, repressive and male-dominated society – they’re the Thelma and Louise of the 50s.
You need only look at Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven or Mildred Pierce to know that Haynes is in his element here and further cementing his auteur status with a tried-and-tested period drama and subject matter: characters defying societal constraints in order to pursue their passion. Yet however familiar the film seems on first viewing, it still fulfills cinema’s great purpose – to sweep you off your feet and into someone else’s story. And it does so in a very classy way. The stylish costumes, immaculate production design and Edward Lachman’s Super 16mm photography recreates the era with such conviction that Carol’s world soon becomes yours, and when the credits roll you find yourself aching for old Hollywood. The velvety, lingering shots of Carol and Therese reflected in rain-kissed windows, mirrors and glossy photographs developing in a darkroom not-so-subtly tell us that they’re in transition, and that whether their burgeoning romance has a happy ending or not, it’ll change them both. When the red lippy makeover scene happens that’s pretty much our cue to sigh in awe at how young Therese is well on her way to becoming a self-assured woman.
Despite this hand-holding, with Mara’s understated performance we’re never sure that Therese is sure (and perhaps that’s the point); she’s being, sometimes literally, brought along for the ride, with no firm autonomy. An example of this is one of the best scenes in the film – Carol and Therese’s first lunch together where Therese, clearly in awe of the woman sat opposite, simply orders ‘what she’s having’ despite not looking like she really has a taste for it. It’s here that you begin to question whether she’s actually capable of caring for someone, or anything, or whether she’s actually just a sulky, dispirited twenty-something. Blanchett’s performance is subtle too, but she dominates most scenes by mixing strength with a hint of vulnerability, allowing the tiny cracks to show at just the right moments and allowing the audience to almost see her brain whirring as Carol decides whether to go there, or to hold back.
In the midst of a divorce and facing a potential child custody battle, it’s Carol that risks the most with this relationship, though by the final third of the film it’s Therese that garners our sympathy as we see her abandoned at a hotel, hanging on the end of a telephone line, or simply hanging onto every word from Carol’s perfectly preened lips. So it’s a shame that in the final scene Mara’s subtlety isn’t stepped up a level as her eyes find Blanchett’s across a busy, upmarket bar; Mara needed to own that scene, to visually show that the pendulum of power had swung in Therese’s direction. It’s another pivotal moment in the story of two unlikely lovers in a bittersweet romance, and in a film that could have gone out with a bang rather than a flicker.