Carol may be in reference to the film’s title character (painted with the motherly warmth and wisdom of Cate Blanchett), but more stirring observations can be made when referring to its nod towards the holiday season. Told by the pen of Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith) and through the lens of Director Todd Haynes, the film centres around a delicate relationship between Carol (Blanchett), a mother whose past relations with a girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) has spurred a divorce from her reluctant husband (Kyle Chandler), and a department store clerk, Therese (Rooney Mara) who softly mirrors Carol’s homosexual desires in her shy relationship with Richard (Jake Lacy). Yet, Carol wouldn’t even been made, much less the recipient of various accolades and noms, if not for the recent incline in LGBTQ rights. As such, the film’s 50s setting and the stigma around said relationships are made all the more taboo in contrast to the backdrop of a traditional Americana Christmas—where the warmth of love between a man and a woman melts through the dark and cold. And where everybody else is out of luck.
This is something one could label: ‘the main conflict’ – a forbidden love. And by all means it’s presented up front through Harge’s (Chandler) messy, muddled divorce, and delicately through Therese’s proverbial touch-and-feel affection with Carol. She’s quiet, young, and curious—borderline conflicted with what she thinks of Carol and what she’s conservatively told to think of Richard. And herein lies the character driven plot that inspires the rather abrupt ending conservative moviegoers might take a disliking to. Regrettably, the divorce is seemingly thrown out the window despite literally driving the plot forward—capped off by a provoking encounter with a stranger Carol and Therese meet whilst on the road. That said, I’d advise viewers to instead turn their attention toward the delicate dance Blanchett and Mara render between the two curious, yet certainly infatuated lovers.
The age difference isn’t the relationship’s sole hook—rather it’s where the women are in their respective stages of life. Carol, having been pulled through the American Dream, is torn between her loyalty to her family and her own happiness, while Therese has only started considering long-term love, realizing Richard could eventually become Harge. Mara’s wide eyes invokes a childish excitement and fear, but which finds empathy in Blanchett’s aura of experience. Deeper, inspired perhaps by the fearful prospect of losing her daughters in the divorce, there’s a particular scene where Therese is sitting at a piano (if I recall correctly) and Carol stands behind her elegantly coursing her hands through the young woman’s hair. It’s quiet and quaint, though it’s our first tactile piece of evidence that Carol’s interest in Therese extends beyond customer satisfaction. And, more beautifully, upon analysis, it’s perhaps the moment where Carol’s motherly duties are liberated by her motherly love for a woman she can finally love without being a mother.
The film is named after her, and by all intents and purposes Blanchett is in control of nearly every scene but Haynes frames the narrative as if through the eyes of Therese. From what little explicit development Mara’s character is given, we do know those curious eyes love peering threw a camera’s viewfinder, yet she’s hesitant to photograph people. Finds it too exposing. A feeling of distance is shot in Haynes’ frames, like they’re attempts of Therese trying to photograph people. Simple conversations in a restaurant or an apartment are shot peering behind a dominant wall or shoved so far to the edge of the screen it’s as if you were spying on these characters. It’s not an uneasy feeling per sae, but one more reflective of loneliness—especially in regard to a reserved yet heart melting score. In time these jarring, obscured shots eventually pay off in articulating the brief flashes of connection. Where a blur of screen and a handful of extended close-ups over a carefully mixed orchestral score emit an uncanny feeling of inseparable lust by contrast. Where gender is meaningless and love reigns for but a stint of omnipresence.