Carol: the best Patricia Highsmith adaptation to date?
Director Todd Haynes understands that cinematic portrayals of the author’s novels work best when they are faithful to her subtleties, whether good or bad
Monday 23 November 2015 09.57 GMT
Fans of the unsettling thrillers of Patricia Highsmith – and their many movie adaptations – should prepare for a new classic among Highsmith movies in Carol, Todd Haynes’s sombrely rapturous filming of the most atypical work in the author’s oeuvre, her early lesbian romance The Price Of Salt.
Published in 1952 under a pseudonym, it enjoyed cult bestseller status with a largely lesbian readership for 30 years. The pseudonym is understandable: only four years earlier, Gore Vidal was banished from the New York Times’ book review pages for his gay melodrama The City And The Pillar, and Highsmith was no doubt aware of the vicious national anti-gay witch-hunts of the period. Worse, The Price Of Salt was published the same year that the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder. And, unlike Vidal, Highsmith left open the possibility of a happy ending for her lovers – scandalous!
To call The Price Of Salt atypical isn’t quite true, though. There is no murder and none of its characters are tortured Dostoyevskian doppelgangers but there is plenty of the anxiety you find in her thrillers. Here it concerns the young protagonist Therese’s gradual, nervous acceptance of her sexuality in a world where she’s terrified even to discuss it, and whether or not her growing love for Carol will be reciprocated. It feels absolutely right that this project landed up in Haynes’s hands; it is tailor-made for his intelligence and sensibility, and is beautiful to boot.
Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Highsmith’s alter ego Therese are the kind of actors essential to a successful Highsmith adaptation, the subtlest kind, whose inner emotions are legible on the outside. Therese’s yearning for the older, maternal Carol, torn apart by her divorce and custody battle, makes for a real emotional battlefield. Haynes has embedded them within a magically melancholy evocation of the vanished Gotham of the early postwar period, one of the most pleasurable aspects of Highsmith’s early novels, and one feels a humming atmosphere of bigotry, disapproval and misunderstanding all around them.
Carol is one of the finest Highsmith adaptations, of which there have been many over the years. It belongs with Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, with Liliana Caviani’s Ripley’s Game and Wim Wenders’s The American Friend (based on the same novel), and alongside Claude Chabrol’s The Cry Of The Owl and an excellent latecomer, Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces Of January. These movies succeeded because the malign spirit of Highsmith made it on to the screen intact (something not true of The Talented Mr Ripley, for example). Carol succeeds because it keeps intact the opposite: the youthful heartache of its as yet unbroken author.
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