‘What do they say makes a play a classic, Therese?’
‘A classic -‘ Her voice sounded tight and stifled. ‘A classic is something with a basic human situation.’
On Saturday, I went with my mum to see Carol at the pictures, as we’d seen a trailer when we saw The Lady in the Van a couple of weeks ago. Mum and I have been to the cinema more recently than we have in years, and it’s lovely.
I don’t often cry in the cinema, but I cried twice. The first time, that part where they’re on the phone, and Carol tells Therese that she wants her to ask her things. I cried so much that my scarf was wet. The second was the part where Therese has to get out of Abby’s car, to be sick. I remember that feeling. I left feeling drunk, heady, impossibly painfully sad and hopeful all at once. I almost cried a whole bunch of other times, too, and probably will when I see it again. It was all very, very real, and very relatable.
People often talk about gay characters in an odd way, saying how good it is that “they’re just gay, it’s not a big deal, they’re just there doing stuff”. Which is fine, I suppose, and certainly characters who have more to them than not-being-straight are very important. But how often do we see a mainstream film where gay characters – especially women – fall in love? Where that is the entire point of the story, like the thousands of films about straight people falling in love, and the setbacks to that? Carol is that film. It’s about being drawn to a person, and dealing with that, and being unsure about it, and that final, wonderful moment when it all aligns. It’s about being torn apart. It’s not about being the butt of jokes, or about guilt, or about one of them dying (always with the dead lesbians), and although much of the plot is about being on the receiving end of appalling homophobia, it isn’t held to ransom by it, by shame. It’s about hope – something that is especially key in lesbian romances because it is almost always missing.
It is visually very beautiful, too. It helps, of course, that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are both so attractive (and they are), and the landscapes lovely, but there’s far more to it than that. With Carol and Therese so often being seen through windows and from concealed places, it is voyeuristic in a way that feels very familiar, very important. So much of their relationship is carried out, by necessity, in public, and these shots are very key to the pervading feeling of being watched – not maliciously, but in the way that, especially in a city, we are always watched, and how heightened that is in light of their situation. This interview backs that up, as Haynes explains how it was a time of extreme paranoia and watchfulness, which really adds to the tension. Some of these shots feel incredibly tender, as though the voyeur has some kind of benevolent power. The whole film is full of colour and light, used so interestingly, and it made perfect sense when I read in a couple of places that Haynes is a fan of Edward Hopper. The costumes are beautiful, and this article about them is really interesting. When I saw it a second time, a week later, I found myself able to really absorb the choices made by the filmmakers outside of the story, and it enriched my experience to properly notice the elements that make it so beautiful.
And as we were also out Christmas shopping, I nipped into Waterstones to get the book. Originally titled The Price Of Salt, but republished as Carol years later, this is the only one of Patricia Highsmith’s novels that I’ve ever read, and I haven’t seen any of the films based on her work either, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was so bewitched, utterly wrapped up in the suspense of it, that I galloped through it – aside from the twenty or so pages I read on Sunday, I read the whole thing on Monday. I read it while walking through London Bridge at rush hour, and across Parliament Square, all the way home and right up to dinnertime, a pause for Nigella and a shower and then finished it, at 10.03pm. Finishing it was like reaching the surface after being underwater for a long time, looking too intently at something interesting and forgetting the need to breathe. Even safe in the knowledge that the book would end similarly to the film, I raced through it, intent on confirming that same feeling of hope and escape. I need to re-read it, more slowly and calmly, but I’m glad that I immersed myself so completely in it.
I struggle, often, with comparing books to films made of them. That assurance that some people have, that the book is always better than the film and that the film can only ever be disappointing, feels unfair to me. Certainly, Carol is a spectacular and important novel. And, certainly, the film leaves out a lot of details, changes a lot of things. This article complains about a lot of those changes, but I’m not sure I agree – particularly as they’re not the alterations that I picked up on the most. But comparisons aside, it is a stunning film in its own right. It tells a story that, yes, is altered, but is no less for it.
I was hoping I would love it – film and novel both – because, as a queer woman, I feel a pressure to back things that represent me, in the hope that we get more, and better, in future. Every film about a queer couple is, at this stage, important, because there are so few of them. They have to be good, and they have to be popular, and we are often prepared to put up with elements we don’t much like, in order to ensure a success, and future successes. But the thing is, I didn’t need to try at all to love Carol. I expected great things from it, and I was not disappointed.