This is the story of two restless women in a repressed time. It’s almost Christmas 1952. Therese (Mara), a young waif-of-a-shop-girl works in Frankenberg’s Department Store where Carol (Blanchett), a sophisticated almost-a-divorcee, is shopping for a Christmas present for her four-year-old daughter. “What did you want when you were that age?” she asks Therese. Therese wanted a train set back then; she’s reluctant to express what she wants now. Because what she wants is Carol. It’s clear that Carol feels the same about her. But these are the years when Gays and Lesbians often hid their feelings behind loveless heterosexual relationships, when too many committed suicide out of desperation and despair. “The Price of Salt,” the Patricia Highsmith 1952 novel on which this is based, was one of the first to suggest there could be happier endings. Director Todd Haynes struggles to find the pace and pulse of Carol and Therese’s affair. Its beginning feels too contrived, its early interactions seem too convenient, its dialog a little too straightforward. Haynes builds his first act haltingly, with tension and restraint, as a kind of dance in which each woman wonders if the other hears the same music.
The second act is intense with the sex and nudity that has earned this an R rating; the third act is choppy, over-drawn. Along the way, there are potentially interesting ideas – train sets and a traveling salesman (Smith); a promising career and a hidden weapon — that are too quickly abandoned before they can contribute fully to the story. In telling of a time when feelings needed to be buttoned-up and emotions toned down, Haynes’ story feels like it lacks depth. Instead of going deep, it simply wanders around. The ending looks and feels like another beginning. A story that’s understated is too often uninvolving. Very little happens and most of what does is inconsequential. Sometimes, less is more. Here, despite powerful performances, less is not quite enough.