Loving Highsmith review – mostly generic love letter to a more complicated subject
Though made with reverence, this doc about the Ripley writer lacks a clear point of view. For Carol stans, however, it’s unmissable
Eva Vitija’s documentary Loving Highsmith charts the unexplored life and work behind one of America’s most prolific yet hidden authors, complimented with readings from her letters and diaries by the actress Gwendoline Christie. But while this queer writer's story is openly dissected and delved into with compassion and obvious consent from her bereaved, here her personal journey is often heavily diluted with a social scenic route that strays more into a collective framework than individual plight.
What makes Patricia Highsmith a particularly important queer figure is that she – in the words of Chaka Khan – is every woman. Using a pseudonym to release her 1952 novel The Price of Salt while simultaneously performing the elitist etiquette of a Texan housewife, Highsmith would eventually close out her time in this world fully comfortable in her direct and more masculine persona, while also re-releasing the aforementioned book under its new title: Carol.
For fans of the Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara masterpiece, Loving Highsmith presents side-by-side visuals to give the overall sense that we're witnessing a fleshed-out truth. In its simplest form, Highsmith effectively took on the role of Therese Belivet, with the film’s introductory scene of Carol choosing a train set at Therese’s department store being heavily influenced by Highsmith’s real life.
The documentary also bridges the gap between Carol and Highsmith’s other more famous books, including Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Stating that she never wished to be confined by genre, her eclectic body of work now stands as a testament to the lack of binary in her own life, seemingly unfazed by her literary success or the challenges she personally faced.
In the broader sense, however, Highsmith’s story as shown here often meanders. Taking in the perspectives of those she met on her travels across Europe, Vitija frequently shifts gears to explore a wider social context, regardless of how well Highsmith fits into it. Though the decision to render Loving Highsmith as a non-linear sojourn is fitting in reflecting Highsmith’s non-conformist personality, it creates an unnecessary struggle for the viewer to keep their eye – and interest – on the subject at hand.
Such waning moments are sometimes underpinned by the director’s overall lack of voice or perspective, which rarely amounts to more than that of a generic love letter. Though it’s understandably more difficult to inject subjectivity into a product that’s essentially formed through archival footage, one does come away craving a more scrupulous approach to this film's complicated subject.
Loving Highsmith was screened as part of the BFI Flare Festival 2023. It is released in UK cinemas on 14 April.Where to watch