By John Campbell
It’s not uncommon for anticipation to put the mock on what might have otherwise been an uplifting and rewarding experience. Patricia Highsmith, more than just creating Ripley, wrote novels of edgy foreboding peopled by characters with jagged, barely accessible mindscapes (Strangers On A Train, my favourite Hitchcock, is hers).
As a longstanding fan, I expected Todd Haynes’s movie to be something that it wasn’t and was subsequently a tad disappointed by how staid – dreary would be going too far – it seemed. Nobody bats an eyelid at lesbian relationships any more, but in the 1950s they were still, as Queen Victoria believed, ‘not possible’.
Therese (Rooney Mara), a sales assistant at a New York department store, serves Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is doing her Christmas shopping. Their eyes meet, etc, and an enduring and loving, if slow-burning, relationship grows between them. Therese needs to deal with her blockhead boyfriend (Jake Lacy), while the older Carol must cope with a disintegrating marriage that involves a bitter dispute over the custody of her daughter.
I kept waiting for something dark to happen (because it’s Highsmith) and was sure that the hidden gun would be the key to unlock the women’s psychic terrains – but the moment fizzled out. This is not a criticism of the film, for it is beautifully made. The period is impeccably created, thanks largely to the iconic Sandy Powell’s costume design; Carter Burwell, the go-to man for so many up-market dramas, has written a score that doesn’t miss a beat; Edward Lachman’s cinematography creates a frosted, elusive intimacy; and you could not fault the performance of anybody in the cast. Rooney especially is fantastic. Less mannered than Blanchett, she is mesmerising as the naif entering a world about which she knows nothing.
The sex scene, however, didn’t work for me, for neither actress appeared comfortable doing it and, in hindsight, I think now that it was because I was never wholly convinced of Therese and Carol’s connection.
It’s good, but for mine the movie’s sum is not as great as its perfect parts.