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Story of two women in love, 'Carol' took a lifetime to reach the screen

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Meeting over a toy train
Cate Blanchett, right, as the sophisticated Carol, buys a toy train from the fresh-faced Therese played by Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes' film "Carol."
Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Judging from its multiple Golden Globe nominations, the movie "Carol," which opens in Minnesota Friday, will be a big success. But it took more than half a century and multiple unsuccessful efforts to make it to the screen.

    "Carol" is based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel "The Price of Salt." It tells the story of a love affair between a wealthy suburban housewife and a shop girl.  

  Highsmith had published the bestselling "Strangers on a Train" two years before. That book, and several others, including "The Talented Mr. Ripley," were successfully adapted as movies.

    But Highsmith published "The Price of Salt" under a pen name, partly because the controversial same-sex love story in the book was based on her own experiences. She said she was inspired by seeing a blonde woman in a fur coat while she was working selling toys in a department store.  

  It's a scene recreated in the film, with Cate Blanchett as the sophisticated Carol, buying a toy train from the fresh-faced Therese, played by Rooney Mara.

    "Where'd you learn so much about train sets?" she asks.

    "Oh, I read," replies Therese. "Too much, probably."

    "That's refreshing," says Carol, tearing off her check. "Thank you. Merry Christmas."  

  "Merry Christmas," replies Therese, who stands watching Carol leave. The meeting launches events that change their lives.

Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes
Producer Christine Vachon and director Todd Haynes.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

    "The Price of Salt" was later republished as "Carol." It was unusual for such books of the time, in that it was a lesbian love story with a relatively happy ending. Film producer Christine Vachon said she picked up the novel after reading several of Highsmith's other books.

    "Which tend to be kind of fabulously mean-spirited thrillers," Vachon said. "And 'Carol' was such an anomaly. And one of the extraordinary things about the book is you really don't know where it's going to go."

    Vachon produced "Boys Don't Cry," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and last year's "Still Alice," among many others.

    She said a script for "Carol" circulated some time ago, but production never gelled. It was only when screenwriter Phyllis Nagy gained the rights and wrote a new script that the film moved forward. It was then that Vachon turned to director Todd Haynes.

    She's produced all of his movies, including "Far From Heaven," set in the 1950s, the glam-rock-inspired "Velvet Goldmine," and "I'm Not There." In that film, he examined the career of Bob Dylan using no fewer than six actors, including Cate Blanchett, to portray the iconic musician. Haynes said that in all those films, and in "Carol," he's exploring issues of identity.

    He wants to tell stories, he said, of "people who take a stance against the notion of fixed identity and identity that keeps you in place. And that sort of tells you who you are in some intact and cohesive way and really pushes against that."

Todd Haynes, left, and Cate Blanchett
Director Todd Haynes, left, talks with actress Cate Blanchett on the set of "Carol."
Courtesy of the Weinstein Company

    Haynes and Vachon visited Minnesota for the recent Walker Art Center retrospective of his work. It included a screening of "Carol." He said the film presented a directorial challenge, because it's basically a love story.

    "And love stories are interesting," he said, "in that they become harder and harder for us to accept in contemporary life, because there always has to be something that keep the lovers apart."

    The social strictures of 1950s America portrayed in "Carol" provide a host of obstacles. But Haynes said the movie's love affair represents an experience familiar to anyone who has fallen in love with someone they believe may be inaccessible, "being completely in the dark about how the other person feels in return."  

  Haynes said the filmmakers cut lines in rehearsal and focused on how Carol and Therese often communicate simply through glances.

    It seems to have worked. "Carol" recently received five Golden Globe nominations: for best drama, best actress nods for both Blanchett and Mara, best director for Todd Haynes, and best score. The Globes are seen as a predictor of Oscar nominations, which are announced Jan. 14.