Each month, Good Times' resident film critic, Sarah Smyth, chooses a hotly anticipated film for our readers. For December, she picks romantic drama, Carol.
The novels of American writer, Patricia Highsmith, have proved fertile ground for rich, interesting and complex big-screen adaptations. Alfred Hitchcock most famously adapted her first novel, Strangers on a Train, in 1951. In 1955, Highsmith introduced the character of Tom Ripley who would span five more of her novels. The two most famous adaptations of Tom’s stories include René Clément‘s 1960 film Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) and Anthony Mingella’s 1999 film, The Talented Mr Ripley. Recently, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen starred in an adaptation of her 1964 book, Two Faces of January. This month sees the release of Carol, an adaptation of Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt. Judging from the rave reviews Carol has received so far after its premiere at Cannes earlier this year, the film proves once more that Highsmith is a masterful storyteller whose novels blister across page and screen.
Carol tells the story of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), an assistant in a toy department in a department store at Christmas in 1950s New York, and Carol Aird, a wealthy mother and housewife who’s stuck in a loveless marriage. They meet at the department store after Carol buys a model train set for her daughter, and the two quickly strike up a friendship. As time goes on, however, the chemistry and attraction between the pair grows, and the film follows their difficult relationship during a stifling and homophobic social climate.
The queer themes of the narrative are new to neither Highsmith nor the film’s director, Todd Hayes. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is sexually ambiguous to say the least. More progressively, (although keen not to be solely identified as a gay filmmaker who makes gay films), Hayes is often associated with New Queer Cinema, a movement during the 1990's onwards which embraced a more fluid representation of sexuality and gender in independent cinema. Carol may be set in the 1950's, but its exploration of queer themes is particularly timely. With calls for a wider acceptance and better representation of non-normative gender and sexualities both in the USA and the UK, Carol resonates with a society and culture where, if not illegal, identifying as queer in whatever way still involves huge levels of discrimination.
Perhaps Carol does not seem like a radical and transgressive piece of queer cinema. It is, after all, a romantic drama styled after the great melodrama director, Douglas Sirk, and with much inspiration taken from David Lean’s repressed romance, Brief Encounter. Yet, this cinematic heritage offers the film a rich tapestry of both stylistic flourishes and sexual devastations. Brief Encounter, although based on a heterosexual couple, shows the distressing oppressions of middle-class heteronormative marriage. Douglas Sirk’s work often focused on the social entrapment of women, something that was further antagonised by romantic relationships. In fact, Haynes 2002 film, Far From Heaven, explored similar themes as the main character, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), begins an affair with African-American gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) after she catches her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) kissing another man. Although these films may not explicitly address LGBT issues, they provide Haynes with a fertile background with which to develop his queer themes further.
Why it’s worth seeing: Patricia Highsmith’s novels are beautifully cinematic, with rich characters, settings and narratives. Carol promises to be no different, with an enviable cast, intriguing plot and sumptuous mise-en-scene. Combined with Todd Haynes’ directorial flourish, something he particularly proved with Far From Heaven, Carol is not to be missed.
Carol is released in the UK on November 28th.
Have you seen it yet? Tell us more!
Sarah is our regular film blogger. Learn more about her here.