Directed by: Todd Haynes
Written by: Phyllis Nagy (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (book)
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson
When Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) see each other for the first time, at a department store in 1950s New York City, their first shared look is a barrage of confusion and longing, of instant connection stifled by societal codes. In other words, it’s love at first sight.
Moments after that frozen-in-time first glance, Carol shows up at the doll display where Therese works, and asks about Christmas gifts for her daughter. Therese doesn’t have the doll she wants in stock, but she suggests a new state-of-the-art miniature train set. “I like your hat,” Carol says of as she walks away, Therese’s eyes widening as as she stays behind with the other Santa hat-donning store clerks.
That could have been it: one small, flirtatious conversation with a beautiful stranger. Therese probably has her share of those at work, but Carol, draped in a heavy fur coat, her face by turns sharp and inviting, is different. Carol seems destined to be that stranger who haunts your memory because you didn’t didn’t move past small talk. Why didn’t I say something more? Why didn’t I ask them to dinner? Why didn’t they ask me?
Therese gets a second chance to meet her when she sees that Carol left behind her gloves at the doll stand. As Therese (and the viewer) gets to know Carol better, it becomes fairly obvious that she left the gloves there on purpose, hoping she’d have an excuse to invite Therese to lunch. They meet at a dimly lit restaurant where Carol doesn’t even need to look at the menu to know what she wants. Therese, nervous and trying to keep up, stumbles over her words as she tells the server she’ll have the exact same thing. (Creamed spinach and a martini, if memory serves).
What Carol does so beautifully, what makes it one of the most ravishing films I’ve seen in recent memory, is that it slows down to examine these minute gestures, to chronicle every touch, every glance that leads to Therese and Carol’s love affair. Todd Haynes’ film is a prolonged and profound examination of the sparks that lead to romance. That it’s a romance between two women in the early ’50s only accentuates each woman’s longing for the other, because the stakes for being discovered are incredibly damaging and even dangerous.
Much of Carol’s first half stems from Therese’s perspective, playing their sudden entanglement off of her growing understanding of herself. At first she seems confused at her attraction to another woman, and even goes so far as to hint about its normalcy to her boyfriend. When she sees Carol she doesn’t seem to know what to say, but she can’t stay away. She is placed at an abrupt and awkwardly close proximity to Carol’s life, which is the set up for the movie’s chief dramatic push. Therese is now privy to her disintegrating marriage with Harge (Kyle Chandler), who boils over with rage at his wife’s rejection.
Phyllis Nagy’s script does not keep the story confined to just Therese’s perspective. Though we first see Carol as enigmatic and quietly regal, the complications in her life begin to seep in as Therese spends more time with her. Carol wants to run away from that familiar company in New York. She has that opportunity after Harge barges in and takes their daughter away for Christmas earlier than they had agreed.
She drives Therese to the train, and again it seems that that might be the last they see of each other. Carol calls, asking if she can come to Therese’s apartment the next day. The camera stays back far enough so that when Therese opens the door Carol is a rapturous figure, her tall red coat and blonde hair take up all the energy in the blank tan room. She asks Therese to go with her; Therese says yes.
It’s not until they’re out of the city, away from everyone who might know them, that Therese and Carol let their guards down all the way. Their series of intimate glances and sporadic hand touching leads to a breathtaking New Year’s Eve kiss and a night of passionate sex.
“My angel, from outer space,” Carol says to Therese while they’re in bed.
Even when their perfect night has tremendous consequences, Haynes and Nagy never give in. Amid all of its marital melodrama, Carol always seems on the verge of tears instead of letting them flow freely. Haynes captures the fragile intimacy at the core of the script with confident restraint. Never has a director better understood the distinct power of a slow-burning glance from Cate Blanchett, or the devastatingly wide-eyed bewilderment of Rooney Mara. Almost every rapturous frame lets us in on these strangers’ secret; each muted exchange is whisked out of the sexually repressed time period by the deep longing in Carter Burwell’s score. Everything about Carol felt so right that when it ended it felt odd that it was just released this year. The moment where Carol looks over her shoulder while picking out a Christmas tree and Therese snaps a photo of her seems like it has always existed. It’s one of many that took my breath away.