Todd Haynes seems like the only choice to direct “Carol,” a forthcoming, 1950s-set lesbian romance in which Cate Blanchett stars as a well-to-do woman captivated by a shop girl (Rooney Mara, from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”).
Haynes previously made “Far From Heaven” and HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” award-winning period pieces about women straining against convention. He also directed Blanchett to an Oscar nomination, as one of several actors playing Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”
But Haynes did not come on board to “Carol” until years into the development process, after another director dropped out, and after a long weekend spent on the Oregon coast (he lives in Portland) poring over the “Carol” script and “The Price of Salt,” the Patricia Highsmith lesbian pulp-fiction classic from which the film was adapted.
First published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, “Salt” is Highsmith’s (“Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) most famous book that does not involve a killer. But Haynes had not heard of it before he considered directing “Carol,” which opens Dec. 25 in Sacramento.
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“I found the book to be such a beautiful, haunting description of falling in love,” Haynes said during a telephone interview. “And it established this whole idea about point of view and subjectivity, and what a key role that plays in great love stories.”
“Salt” unfolds from the perspective of Therese, a 19-year-old who is new to Manhattan and working behind a department store’s doll counter when she meets Carol, a glamorous woman in her early 30s seeking a Christmas gift for her young daughter. This encounter leads to a sexual tension-packed lunch and a visit by Therese to the spacious New Jersey home that Carol, separated from her husband, shares with her daughter.
Through her visits with Carol, Therese begins to understand why she doesn’t feel much for the young man she’s dating. The theme of awakening carries through the novel, as Therese acclimates to New York City while pursuing a career in the arts (set design in the book, photography in the film) and Carol.
“Carol” removes some of the book’s subjectivity by directly showing confrontations between Carol and her husband (Kyle Chandler). Stung by Carol’s rejection and her new relationship, the husband threatens to keep their daughter from Carol. In the book, the reader learns about these discussions only secondhand.
“The big, dramatic combustive events are really in Carol’s world” rather than Therese’s, Haynes said, explaining the occasional perspective switch for the film.
With Carol’s dilemma so clearly visible, the stakes seem higher in the film than in the book. This might have been true just by virtue of Mara, 30, and Blanchett, 46, being so much older than the characters in the book. Although Carol’s and Therese’s ages are not specified in the film, they clearly have been aged up, to points at which it is not as easy to bounce back from love affairs, same-sex or otherwise.
“Carol” shows societal disapproval of homosexual relationships in the ’50s without being heavy-handed about it. Haynes weaves social commentary into the piece’s fabric, alongside exquisitely period-correct clothes, cars and buildings, as he did with 2002’s “Heaven” and the 2011 miniseries “Pierce.”
A period film “is kind of holding up a frame that you’re asking people to look in through,” Haynes said. “It means that (people) are, in a way, being asked to look inside at what they see through the frame and find themselves there somehow and make that connection themselves.”
Like “Heaven” and “Pierce,” “Carol” boasts handsome cinematography and production design throughout, its muted gray-and-brown palette matching its lead actresses’ reserved demeanor. Scenes of Mara looking very Audrey Hepburn-gamine while walking down wintry city streets were shot in Cincinnati, Ohio, rather than Manhattan.
“Because New York has been under such an overhaul for the past 10 or 15 years, very little of that old New York of the 1950s still exists,” said “Carol” producer and frequent Haynes collaborator Christine Vachon. “There are still parts of Cincinnati that are very period correct and beautiful.”
“Carol,” like most Haynes projects, has drawn awards attention. Mara drew the best-actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’s a strong contender for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, as is Blanchett for lead.
One could argue for either as supporting or lead, thanks to those perspective shifts. But it seems more like Blanchett’s movie, since the two-time Oscar winner is the better-known star and therefore the one potentially taking a risk in a same-sex romance.
But with gay marriage legal in the United States, and “Brokeback Mountain” now 10 years old, Blanchett’s character’s sexuality might not be that remarkable anymore.
“What is really more extraordinary … is (Blanchett) is really playing the object of desire for a lot of the movie,” Haynes said. “And for the older woman, and the bigger star or the person who has had a longer career, to play the object of desire to a younger, clearly attractive actress like Rooney Mara, that is unexpected.”