Carol. It’s a film that’s been stuck in my head since seeing it. The story is well presented, the leads are great, and it’s a well-directed picture. There’s little bad I have to say about it, but what sells it is the lead performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two women who find love at a time when such passion between two women would be forbidden. They both experience turmoil and a case of heartbreak, but try to maintain their bond. Will their love endure? Let’s jump right in.
The film begins in New York, 1952. A man named Jack Taft, played by Trent Rowland, enters a bar and gets himself a drink on particularly busy night. As he drinks, though, he spots a familiar face across the room.
He heads over and does indeed spot a friend of his: Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara. Therese, it turns out, is in the middle of a dinner with her acquaintance, Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett. Jack, who hasn’t seen Therese in some time, invites her to a party he’s about to attend. Though Therese seems reluctant to leave, Carol insists that she go, as she herself has an upcoming engagement anyway.
Following the departure, we cut to Therese waking up and preparing for the day. She works in the toy section of a Frankenberg’s department store and has a fascination with train models. This interest alone makes me like Therese. When the store opens and people begin their holiday shopping, one woman in particular gets Therese’s attention, and that’s Carol. She’s searching for a specific doll for her daughter, but said doll is currently unavailable at the store.
Carol makes small talk by asking what Therese’s favorite toy was from her youth. Therese didn’t have many, though. She’s always wanted a train set and knows quite a lot about them through reading. Therese informs Carol that while the particular doll may not be in stock, it can be shipped to her. With that, Carol leaves her address and heads out, but not before complimenting Therese on her Santa hat. It’s brief, but Therese appears touched by this. She also notices that Carol left her gloves behind.
Later, Therese, her boyfriend Richard, played by Jake Lacy, and some friends head to a bar after seeing a film at the cinema. Therese brings her camera along with her, as she has a keen interest in photography. As it so happens, one member of the group, Dannie, played by John Magaro, works for The New York Times and can probably make some connections for Therese. It’s nice to know people who know people, you know?
We then go to Carol’s home as she has some alone time with her daughter, Rindy, played by Sadie Heim, before the arrival of Carol’s husband, Harge, played by Kyle Chandler. Harge and Carol have a tense relationship with about as much chemistry as fire and ice. Harge wants Carol to attend a dinner that a friend of theirs wants her to attend, even though she’d rather do anything else. However, she does agree to go.
Back at Frankenberg’s, Therese learns that Carol’s package has been delivered. She then receives a phone call from Carol, who thanks her for returning the gloves. As a token of her gratitude, she offers to take Therese to lunch.
At said lunch, as the two enjoy their smokes, Carol finds Therese’s name quite original and captivating, as if Therese had been flung out of space. Therese, by comparison, is nervous during this outing and finds it difficult to maintain eye contact with Carol. On the subject of relationship issues, neither is doing so well right now. Carol is soon to be divorced, while Therese isn’t exactly rushing to marry Richard. Going forward, the two women don’t have plans this Sunday, so Therese offers to visit Carol.
After lunch, Carol receives a ride from a friend, Abby, played by Sarah Paulson, who looks far cheerier than she did in 12 Years a Slave. The two then head to the aforementioned party and Carol has a less than pleasant time. One of the hosts even invites Carol over for the holiday, but she may do her own thing.
At the New York Times office, Dannie shows Therese around and explains that he’s a writer and focuses on people, similar to Therese with her photography. However, Therese feels weird taking pictures of people. There’s a level of attraction to some people, and Dannie tells her that it’s like physics, or rather, two pinballs bouncing off of each other. When the two get close, Dannie goes in for the kiss. Ballsy, but foolish, in my opinion. Therese isn’t bothered, but she does use this kiss as her cue to exit, stage left.
Sometime after the party, Harge and Carol talk, with Harge thinking that Carol has something going on with Abby. Carol, though, says that what went on between the two of them is already over. It’s not supposed to be like this for them, and Carol knows this, but it’s what they have right now.
Carol heads into town to pick up Therese, who snaps a few shots of Carol while she buys a Christmas tree. Carol and Rindy later put up the three at their home before Carol asks Therese whether the pictures she took were of her. As Therese then plays the piano, Carol asks Therese if she wants to be a photographer. After all, people let you know that you have talent and Carol likes the pictures.
But then Harge makes an unexpected visit because he wants to take Rindy with him for the holidays. Surprised to see this random woman, Harge asks her how she knows his wife. Harge and Carol clash outside, with Harge calling Carol cruel, while Therese listens. When the argument ends and Carol heads back in, she immediately decides to take Therese into the city. It’s an abrupt end to a nice visit as Therese finds herself in tears on the train back home.
However, when Therese arrives home, she receives a call from Carol, who apologizes for being horrible. Therese has so much that she wants to ask Carol, who wants to be asked.
Carol’s bad news with her marriage gets worse. Fred Haymes, played by Kevin Crowley, informs Carol that Harge is seeking an injunction and wants sole custody of Rindy. How? With a morality clause and evidence of a pattern of lewd behavior. However, the hearing isn’t until March, so until then, Carol should avoid attracting any sort of scrutiny, despite her disbelief at what’s happened.
Back in the city, Therese purchases an album. She talks with Richard that she’s thinking of creating a portfolio, but Richard is all-consumed with his hopes that Therese will come with him to live in Europe. Therese switches the conversation to love and asks how often Richard has experienced it. There were two women he slept with before Therese, but that was it.
Therese then asks the important question of whether Richard ever loved a boy. Obviously not. But there’s a reason that Therese asked that question, so Richard flips it around and asks if she likes a particular girl. I can’t say I buy whether people in the 1950s talked like this, but whatever. Therese tells Richard that she’s not ready for the kind of big commitment that he wants.
Carol meets with Abby to discuss the morality clause. Abby is aghast, but Carol almost blames herself for it coming to this point. She plans to go west for some time, but no one can know about it.
She then delivers a gift to Therese: a brand new camera and film. On the rooftop, Carol thinks that it’s futile to fight this injunction. However, she doesn’t blame Therese for anything that’s happened. In fact, she invites her to join her on the road. Well, Therese is certainly pleased to hear this.
But Richard isn’t, and he lets Carol know as much when the two talk later. His mind is still on Europe and he believes that Therese’s infatuation with Carol amounts to nothing more than a silly little crush. More than that, he believes that despite what’s happening now, eventually Carol will get tired of Therese. He storms off, saying that in two weeks, Therese will come begging for him.
Sounds bad, but when Therese and Carol hit the road, Therese presents Carol with a Christmas gift, a Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday album, to Carol, she remarks that she hadn’t even thought about Richard since the argument.
Harge, though, hasn’t been able to get Carol off of his mind to the point that he confronts Abby in a rage, thinking that she’s hiding his wife. But Abby isn’t putting up with any of Harge’s bullshit and says that he’s got some fucking nerve to act the way that he is, injunction and all. The two clash and Harge does eventually soften, telling Abby that Carol is still his wife. True as that is, Abby can’t help him with that.
Back on the road, the two ladies stop at a hotel. As Carol showers, she calls out for Therese to find her sweater. She does indeed find it in her suitcase, but also spots a gun as well. If movies are any indication, that firearm will become important later. On the subsequent car ride, Therese asks Carol if she feels safe with her. Carol responds that she’s not frightened at all.
At the next hotel, Carol wants a modest room, but Therese, living life to the fullest, suggests the presidential suite. While Carol settles in, Therese collects some ice from outside and meets Tommy Tucker, played by Gotham’s Edward Nygma himself, Cory Michael Smith. Tommy is a salesman, but not just any salesman. He sells notions, despite not knowing what those even are. He tries and fails to make a sale to both Carol and Therese, but it’s a decent attempt.
Carol and Therese’s road trip will eventually take them to Chicago, same place where Tommy is headed. That’s no coincidence, I’m betting. He shows them a shortcut on their map. During the trip, Therese receives some mail, even though no one should know where she is. Carol, meanwhile, makes a brief phone call, but tells Therese that she just visited the ladies room. They’re the same place, really.
Eventually, the two arrive in Waterloo, Iowa. Interesting name. The New Year is upon them and it’s a pretty big moment for Carol, as she and Harge never spent the New Year together. Business always came up. Therese has been in big groups before, but she always felt alone in the crowd.
As the two talk in their hotel room, they grow closer and take each other to bed. As they slowly begin to explore one another, Carol reiterates her point about Therese: she’s a girl flung right out of space.
There were two films I saw in 2015 that presented a young, female protagonist in New York that’s on a journey to find herself and finds love in the process. But while Brooklyn had Eilis also go through a case of culture shock between Ireland and New York, Therese, I feel, is more about self-discovery.
Carol is a tale of forbidden love, and it hurts to say something so cliché, but we’re talking about two women who fall in love in 1950s New York. Even the mere idea would be taboo. We live in a time where such a conversation or relationship is considered normal. Or close to normal, I suppose.
But while Carol does present a relationship involving two women, I appreciate that this film didn’t try to hit the audience over the head with that. It would be easy for the writer and director to force the message that, yes, we’re dealing with a same-sex relationship, as if that’s a big deal. Films like Grandma and Blue is the Warmest Colour both had lesbian couples, but the fact that they were lesbians wasn’t the point. The strength of the relationships came from the writing, performances, and the fact that their bonds felt natural.
With Carol, the topic of homosexuality is touched upon, but not shoved in your face. It’s played up as a foreign or alien concept, but not 100 percent impossible. Therese and Richard talk about whether it’s possible to like someone of the same gender. For them, it’s not, but nothing that someone would ever consider. It’s just so unnatural in their eyes. We’re at a period in history where many believe science can cure homosexuality, similar to what we’ve seen in Showtime’s Masters of Sex. A relationship between two people of the same gender just means something is wrong with the two people involved.
Adding to the abnormality of it all, Carol twice remarks that Therese was flung out of space. Sure, we know that Carol has engaged in a sexual relationship with women in the past, but even that comes off as other worldly to society as a whole. To the world, homosexuals have some kind of deformity, as if they were indeed flung out of space. But that makes it all the more unique and special for Carol and especially Therese as she explores these feelings for the first time.
And that has a lot to do with the film’s focus on personal identity. Again, going back to Brooklyn for a bit, Eilis and Therese come off as very normal to the average person. Nothing about them really sticks out and Therese doesn’t really see herself as special. She doesn’t believe she’s the best photographer in the world or think she’s extraordinary. Hell, she appears to be just going through the motions of her relationship with Richard.
But the smallest of compliments from Carol about her hat, which is no different from what the other employees wore that day, was enough to make her feel desirable in someone else’s eyes. Therese isn’t out to be a people pleaser or the center of attention. It’s only when she receives compliments from the likes of Carol and Dannie that she becomes more outspoken in what she wants.
She expressed a desire early on that she wanted to create a portfolio, but never followed through on it. Once Carol complements her work, she actively works to take more photos and build out her portfolio in order to pursue an actual career. What seemed far off or impossible became a reality.
This extends the reality of her relationship with Carol, and I like how the film doesn’t force the two together very fast. We see them develop over time in increments. They begin with Therese as the employee and Carol the customer, that extends to a phone call to lunch to gift exchanges to visiting each other’s homes- director Todd Haynes and writer Phyllis Nagy took care to make sure we saw Carol and Therese grow.
Rather than being told about exploits off-screen, the audience gets to see Therese and Carol change, as real people would. But despite how close the two grow, there’s still a generational divide. Carol is seasoned and experienced in romantic affairs, while Therese found it difficult at first to discuss the idea of loving another woman. Carol lives in affluence and embodies the life of the rich and famous: large home, fancy ride, and a child.
Therese lives in an apartment that she needs to paint, works in customer service, and isn’t captivated by her boyfriend. She’s humble and isn’t one seeking a glamorous lifestyle. I get the sense that if she weren’t working at the department store, she’d be perfectly happy in photography because that’s her passion. If there was any sort of falling out, I don’t think she’d lose much, particularly when she’s not invested in Richard for the long run.
By comparison, Carol has much to lose: her reputation, the remnants of her crumbling relationship with Harge, and most important, her daughter. As evidenced by her past fling with Abby, Carol has been down this path before, but this sort of tryst, no matter how much she wants it, will end with someone being hurt. Her plate is fuller and what she’s enduring is something that Therese can’t understand quite yet. It’s like the old adage, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
What I like about Carol and Therese’s relationship is that there’s no guarantee that this will last forever. This is no fairy tale romance. Carol may have gone through an affair before, but to Therese, this is brand new. And as the two grow, Therese becomes more grown up as opposed to the timid girl Carol first met. Carol, for fear of being exposed or getting in too deep, has to be a few steps ahead of Therese, but even she can’t account for everything, which gets her into trouble a few times.
While Carol isn’t what I’d call a role model for women, she’s not made unsympathetic because of her infidelity. Sure, there’s something to be said about a person who is unfaithful in their marriage and could damage the relationship with their family, but she’s not doing it out of spite.
She’s not happy in her marriage, but she does love Rindy enough to try and find a middle ground so she can still see her, even if it means losing custody. That doesn’t turn her into a saint overnight, but we see that she doesn’t want the family to crumble into complete disarray. At one point during a custody hearing, she tells Harge that they aren’t ugly people, as in she doesn’t want this battle to change them for the worse. Carol may not have feelings for Harge, but she’s not going to let this paint both him and her as villains.
Cate Blanchett plays this role effortlessly as a conflicted New York socialite. It’s not as layered or complex as the socialite that Blanchett portrayed in Blue Jasmine, in my opinion, but it’s a great performance nonetheless. And so much of the performance is told through little subtleties: the lightest touch of the hand, a slight smile, and longing gazes- it’s a great example of a film showing us chemistry between two people instead of spelling it out.
What’s more, Blanchett doesn’t give Carol this air of superiority. She doesn’t flaunt her wealth or treat Therese like some second class citizen because of the differences between them. She just happens to have money, but she’s not unlikable because of that. It’d be easy to portray Carol as cold, distant, and antisocial because of her wealth, but Blanchett plays her with such vulnerability that I sympathize with her at times.
Carol carries a gun with her because she’s unsure who may try to threaten her life, despite the fact that she’s a well-off White woman in 1950s America. She wants out of her crumbling marriage so she can be on her own, but she’s unwilling to fully lose her daughter- the one thing that still unites her and Harge. But around Therese, all that hardness vanishes and she lowers her defenses because Therese gives her a sense of happiness I’m guessing Harge hasn’t made her feel in a long time. It’s a great performance from Blanchett.
And just as strong in her performance is Rooney Mara. There’s this unassuming innocence to Therese because she’s not a showoff, she doesn’t come from wealth or fame, and she works in a department store. But from how she talks about her love of trains, the skill in which she takes photos and plays the piano, we see that this is a woman with untapped potential. And she’s not one to stay confined to gender roles.
She doesn’t care about Richard’s plan to go to Europe because she’s making a life for herself. And she refuses to accept his notion that she made him change. Therese may be soft-spoken, but she’s a fighter. Her relationship with Carol seemed to reveal a new, more assertive side to her.
Therese starts off unsure of her feelings, but even when she does gain more clarity in what she wants from a relationship, she’s also much more focused on her professional life than when the film started. By film’s end, she’s not the shy clerk we first met.
Now, I don’t have any major gripes with the film, but I would like to gripe about the sex scene between Therese and Carol for one reason: the score. This is common for films and televisions, but I hate when some big musical score plays during a sexual encounter, intimate or otherwise. It makes the moment feel more Hollywood than intimate.
For comparison’s sake, in Blue is the Warmest Colour, the first time Emma and Adele have sex, there’s proper build to it, but there’s no score played against the scene. It’s stark and feels both real and more authentic because we’re watching two people express and act out on their feelings for one another. It feels less like a scene from a movie and more like we’re peering in on this cherished moment. We don’t need to be told it’s a big deal because we can see that for ourselves.
But in this instance, the score overplays the fact that this is a big step forward for Therese and Carol. The film was building to this and had already established their bond, so I don’t need music playing in the background to highlight something I can figure out for myself. I know, it’s a minor quibble that’s inconsequential to the film as a whole, but it’s something I wish films and television shows would move pass. This is a film with a same-sex couple. If Brokeback Mountain and Blue is the Warmest Colour can make sexual encounters feel more authentic by having those scenes play without music, then this film has no excuse.
Again, though, it’s a minor qualm on what’s still an outstanding film about discovery and personal growth as two women embark upon a forbidden romance. The biggest strength of Carol comes from the strong performances and chemistry of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as they make their characters and bond feel real. It’s not about the fact that the relationship involves two women: it’s about taking that step into dangerous, yet intriguing and unchartered territory.
While Therese and Carol may have much to lose from the others around them, when they’re around each other, there’s a sense of belonging and peace that they don’t get from the other people in their lives. And despite the odds they face, dangers they encounter, and how their lives change, their desire to be together won’t fade away.