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Blanchett shines in lesbian romance Carol

Film & TV

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Cate Blanchett is luminous in Carol, a stunningly sensual lesbian romance set in 1950s New York and based on a book by American author Patricia Highsmith.

In appearance, the Australian actress looks every inch the beautiful, elegant, mid-20th-century socialite. In performance, she nails the complex, compelling character around which the film revolves.

Highsmith is better known among mainstream audiences for her crime fiction, with the films The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Two Faces of January (2014) all adapted from her books.

But Carol, originally published with the title The Price of Salt, is a lesbian classic – a love story based around the relationship between Carol (played by Blanchett), a sophisticated woman on the verge of divorce, and young department store assistant Therese (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

The book has been treated with respect by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There). Carol remains true to the restrained tone of the original story, yet is a captivating and visually beautiful production.

The film opens with a glimpse of the future, with Carol and Therese sharing a drink during a strained rendezvous at a restaurant. Then it pitches backwards to where it all began: the toy department of the store in which Therese works and Carol is looking for a Christmas gift for her young daughter.

The development of the relationship between the two women is teasingly erotic but also uneasy, unfolding against the backdrop of a society constrained by the social mores of the time. Carol, embroiled in tense custody negotiations with her ex-husband (Kyle Chandler), is necessarily guarded; Therese is still discovering her sexuality.

A great strength of Blanchett and Rooney’s performances is their quiet intensity, which accentuates the emotional depth of the film. Their characters don’t exude great warmth, but there are hidden strengths which gradually emerge.

The dramatic tension in Carol centres on what price the women might have to pay for their love – and whether, inevitably, it will end up tearing them apart.

It must have taken courage for Highsmith to publish her ground-breaking novel in 1952, even though she did so under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. This was a time when homosexuality was not only considered immoral, it was also still classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

Early copies of The Price of Salt featured the line: “The novel of a love that society forbids”.  A New York Times review said the book handled “explosive material … with sincerity and good taste”.

It’s taken a long time for the story to make it to the big screen, but it was  worth the wait.

This review was written following the screening of Carol at the Adelaide Film Festival. 

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