Written by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Todd Haynes
As a gay person, Todd Haynes is always looking back to those times when his sexuality was not given a space to exist in the light much less even acknowledged as legitimate. He’s gone back to the turning point of the 1970s with the glam rock scene of Velvet Goldmine, explored the horrors across time of discovering one’s sexuality in Poison and with Carol he seems to have found a place where joy can be found yet still constrained by the mores of the period. Carol is an exploration of two women’s love affair yet should connect with all members of the audience who have found themselves caught up in their passions and were a complex mix of happiness and anxiety. This is a film about the effervescence of love, the frustrating intangibility of connecting with another.
Therese is a shopgirl in 1950s Manhattan caught up in the life that is expected of her. She is going steady with a fine young man who has grand aspirations of traveling to Europe with her and getting engaged. Therese silently goes along, never agreeing or speaking up for herself. Life changes in a moment when she meets Carol, a wealthy older woman who has come to buy a gift for her daughter. Therese learns that Carol is in the process of a divorce due to her desire to be with women. Carol’s husband is angered and depressed over his crumbling marriage and is egged on to seek full custody of their daughter by his socialite mother. Carol and Therese find themselves pulled together despite all the circumstances surrounding them that should keep them apart.
Todd Haynes has always been a filmmaker overflowing with emotion; the aforementioned Velvet Goldmine is a manic recreation of the youthful music scene of mid-1970s London. Making a film set in the staid American 1950s poses an interesting challenge but ultimately leads to the breaking of a moment to pent up feelings an even more powerful resonance. Carol and Therese spend three-fourths of the film circling each other in a warm affection, at one point Therese’s boyfriend refers to it as a silly crush. Neither of these women had experienced love as profound as what they felt as their relationship unfolded.
Haynes is never maudlin in his sentiment and makes sure that the challenges Carol and Therese face on the path to their love are weighty. They are not merely going to be able to gloss over the demands and expectations of their world. As profoundly as they fall in love, we feel the pain of the inevitable just as powerfully. This is not an era where these two women will be allowed to love each other on their terms, society will attempt to bend them, and if that fails, ultimately break them. The women must, in turn, learn to create a new path, one that allows them to hide in the spaces their culture is unaware of because what they feel for each other is not something that can be extinguished.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman captures the period and its bursts of color amidst a sea of grey and black. He maneuvers us through the memories of Therese, shielded by the window of a yellow cab, the city around her turned into an unfocused smear of light and sound. We feel the crisp chill of December snow in the prelude to Christmas and the warm interiors of a rural New Jersey manor. The story of Therese is a fantasy from the mind of Patricia Highsmith, a writer who was a closeted lesbian for many years. Inspired by an encounter with a woman in the department store where Highsmith worked sparked the idea of this “what if” scenario. Highsmith infused many of her own experiences into the narrative, including one of her lovers losing custody of her daughter to a vindictive ex-husband. While the specifics are imagined, the tone and the core of Carol are a reality many women have lived through, and sadly, some continue to do so.