First published under a pseudonym as The Price of Salt in 1952, Carol could be considered somewhat of an anomaly in Highsmith’s body of work given that it focuses on the relationship between two women rather than two men. However, like many of her books, it was inspired by real-life experience. Before becoming a published author, Highsmith had worked for a time in the toy section of New York department store Bloomingdale’s. On one particular day, a sophisticated older woman came in to buy a gift for her daughter and, despite only conversing briefly, Highsmith was completely bowled over by her. The incident spurred the young writer to explore in fiction what might have been.
‘At its heart [Carol] is a tight psychodrama that pitches its characters into moral dilemmas’ notes Val McDermid in a foreword to the novel, ‘What links it to the rest of [Highsmith’s] work is the narrative: tense, anxious and always filled with suspense, it feels like a thriller.’ Playwright and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy spent well over a decade trying to bring Carol to the big screen, strong in the belief felt that the film version called for a non-conventional approach to romantic drama. ‘Carol the novel is about observation and gesture’ she told The Guardian’s Paula Cocozza, ‘And so I was allowed to write scenes that had nothing in them but behaviour…That peculiar sense of sitting next to someone for the first time, smelling their perfume.’
In Todd Haynes, the formally and thematically bold director of Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002) and I’m Not There (2007), Nagy found the ideal collaborator. Haynes is renowned for his period films and his vision of 1950s New York is extraordinarily evocative. Nagy and Haynes’ treatment of the blossoming relationship between Thérèse (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) is more than sensitively handled. In one sequence, when Carol is driving Thérèse, we see and hear from Thérèse’s point of view. In a style reminiscent of the films of Claire Denis, Haynes presents close-ups of Carol’s arms on the wheel, her hair, her lips. Sound too, becomes subjective, with a piano-led cue from composer Carter Burwell mixed in with heightened diegetic sounds.