Oh, thank goodness. Just when I’d given up hope for a truly great film with gay characters at the center of the story in 2015, Carol came along.
Director Todd Haynes has established a reputation for bringing both a great sense of film history and a refreshingly queer sensibility to the films he’s created. He’s not prolific – his last proper film was 2007’s Bob Dylan semi-biopic I’m Not There, and he helmed the Kate Winslet/HBO miniseries version of Mildred Pierce before tackling this film – but that’s made up for with the films he creates. Much like his 2002 feature Far from Heaven, Carol is both set in and visually resembles the films of the 1950s. The way the story unfolds resembles classic Hollywood pacing; Carol deliberately takes its time in exploring its subject matter. What sets it apart from a film from the 1950s, then, is the story itself.
Shortly before Christmas, a shop girl named Therese (Rooney Mara) meets an older woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett) at the toy counter of the department store where Therese works. While their conversation is, on the surface, rather standard, it’s clear that both women recognize something in each other that creates intrigue. When Carol leaves after placing her order, she “accidentally” leaves her gloves behind, prompting Therese to make contact with her. From there, the two build a friendship where the two test the boundaries of what might be considered acceptable.
For Carol, her attraction to other women isn’t news. That attraction has led to relationships with other women, including her ex-turned-best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). It’s also tied into the dissolution of her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler), who can’t comprehend Carol’s choices. For Therese, though, it’s an altogether new sensation. In spite of being engaged to Richard (Jake Lacy), Therese can’t help but become increasingly attracted to Carol as they spend more time together.
Events take a sudden turn when Harge rushes their daughter, Rindy (Sadie and K.K. Heim), away for Christmas, then inadvertently notifies her of his intention to seek full custody because of what he deems “immoral” behavior on Carol’s part. Carol decides to leave town, and she invites Therese to join her. Ignoring Richard’s objections, Therese goes along with Carol on a road trip to nowhere in particular, even though neither Carol nor Therese have explicitly suggested anything more than friendship. Yet.
Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, a book originally published under a pen name not only for the lesbian content, but for its rarity as a book published at that time with an ending that involves neither a “cure” nor suicide. The film takes a similar approach, creating a story that feels true to the period without resorting to either a horrific end or an ending that’s anachronistic.
While Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and the crew of the film (particularly cinematographer Edward Lachman) deserve tremendous credit for their work, what makes the film work most effectively is its leads. Blanchett is the more high-profile of the two, and she deserves credit for turning in one of her best performances in a career stacked with them. But Mara deserves just as much credit, showing a fiery passion in her eyes that’s rarely expressed in her actions. Their performances feed off each other, to the point where the key to either working is both working.
Carol is, in many ways, not a modern story. The relationship at its center moves through suggestion and subtlety, not blatant statements or grand proclamations of love. But that subtlety is expertly demonstrated, and effectively makes each moment work. Carol brims with fire and passion underneath a veneer made to hide such emotions.