Todd Haynes' resonant period romance echoes Far From Heaven, but Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara elude that film’s glossy fatalism.
Todd Haynes’ Carol offers two views of the holiday season. In 1952's New York City, we first see family gatherings, snowy sidewalks, and shopping trips. Just below that surface, two women engage in illicit romance, at every turn reminded of everything they are not allowed to have. Their world doesn't allow for same-sex attraction, much less the idea that two women could share a life together. As everyone else around them is making merry, their secret turns sharp enough to cut glass.
Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a middle-aged woman who feels trapped in a marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler). Though he knows about her past affairs with women, he believes she'll be able to quit, like one would stop smoking. When Carol wafts into the department store, her interest in clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) is more than casual. “I like the hat,” Carol says in a coy whisper, pointing to Therese’s store-mandated Santa hat like she’s baiting a hook. She leaves behind a pair of gloves, not so accidentally.
Soon, Carol is having Therese out to her house. Just friends. Therese doesn’t know what she’s getting into until she’s already fallen deep for Carol, given an incandescent glow by Blanchett’s deft brand of melodrama.
Therese, played by Mara with a watchful quietude, has a faraway look in her eyes. The neatly framed photographs she takes of animals and inanimate objects, and stunted inability to declare her own desires, suggest she doesn’t want to be a shopgirl all her life, but hasn’t been given permission to dream of anything different for herself. That is, at least, until Carol comes along and opens that particular Pandora’s Box.
There’s a grim precedent for the predatory lesbian character in the shelves of gay-themed pulp fiction being churned out in 1952, when the source novel behind Carol, Patricia Highsmith’s somewhat autobiographical The Price of Salt, was first published under a pseudonym (like Therese, the writer worked in a department store during the holidays). While Haynes has ample opportunity to indulge in that sort of stereotype -- what with Carol’s age, money, and (it would seem) greater bedroom experience -- his film never plays it that way. Carol isn’t preying on an inexperienced younger woman so much as she is being emotionally reckless.
Viewed mostly from Therese’s point of view, Carol focuses on its title character. This makes it something of a one-way romance, particularly given that Therese’s scenes without Carol always seem to be waiting for something. While the snow drifts outside, the women share instantly intimate conversation and smoky glances. They watch each other with wide eyes and sly smiles like two people sharing a private joke that nobody else will ever get.
One evening by the fire, Carol wraps a Christmas package and Therese plays the piano, an image that suggests they've been a couple for years. The picture is knocked askew by Harge's entrance.
Stuck between abandoning the possibility of love and leaving her young daughter Rindy (Kk Heim and Saiden Heim), Carol decides on neither, instead taking an irresponsible road trip west, her billowing fur coat and queenly demeanor brooking no argument. Therese follows, in essence dumping Richard (Jake Lacy), the guy who seems to be her boyfriend for no other reason than that he’s announced it.
Therese's move is a fascinating development here, because it’s at once subservient -- she follows Carol in full obedience, sitting in the passenger seat and handling the luggage like some personal assistant -- and also resolutely defiant, as she breaks with her Richard-ordained path of steady employment, courtship, and marriage. Her rebellion evokes memories of Haynes’ last 1950s-set weepie about forbidden attractions, Far From Heaven (2002). That film was so wrapped up in shiny-pretty Nicholas Ray-like mannerisms that it may as well have been encased in amber.
Here, Ed Lachman’s cinematography has more grit than gloss. Everything in Haynes’ vision emphasizes how trapped the women are. They're framed inside windows, cars, and phone booths, surrounded by rain, clouds, and drifting snow. Even their swoons are tinged with regret and worry. Yet there remains something in Blanchett’s burning intensity and chaotic urgency that refuses to accept their predetermined future as lonely outcasts.
“You’ll understand this someday," Carol tells Therese. Try as she might to play the pessimist, however, the light in Carol’s eyes says the opposite.