Trapped behind the doll counter in the toy section of a large New York department store for the holidays, Therese (trussed up in a Santa hat like a festive fawn) is dreaming of a creative life as a photographer.
Across a blur of Christmas shoppers she catches a glimpse of a statuesque beauty. Cate Blanchett is Carol, a blue-blooded 1950s socialite going through a messy divorce. She spies the startled Therese (Rooney Mara), and circles closer to the young store clerk’s coop.
She orders a train-set for her small daughter, leaving their home address for delivery. Distracted by gift-buying (or in a calculated move), she forgets her gloves. After Therese posts them on, Carol invites the younger woman to lunch, and a tentative relationship develops.
Lumbered with an amiable yet persistent boyfriend whom she doesn’t love, Therese discovers a life she didn’t know could exist – Carol is her awakening.
The stoic Carol is also infatuated, but her affliction is both showier and more muted. It’s risky for her, especially if her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has anything to do with it. Still seething over his wife’s affair with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), he wants sole custody of his daughter with Carol.
When Carol escapes her fraught family relations by taking Therese on a road trip, Harge has them tailed by a private detective. Therese’s discovery of a revolver in her lover’s suitcase only intensifies the ominous mood.
But the movie is based on Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel (written from Therese’s perspective, while Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay gives equal voice to both characters) which was groundbreaking in its depiction of a homosexual romance that did not end tragically.
Although melancholy, Carol is also surprisingly hopeful. Todd Haynes’ beautiful, restrained and elegant work effortlessly transports the viewer to 1950s America and to two women ahead of their time.
The lead characters are not ashamed of their desires – Carol is a free spirit, showing only faint frustration for her critics. Therese, rigid with awkwardness at the start, flourishes into a similarly self-possessed woman.
Set in an era of repressive social conventions, the movie does not seek to enrage the audience, and the lack of right-on wrath may make this artfully crafted movie too cold and perfect for some.
Billed as a “lesbian romance”, at Carol’s beguiling heart are two people consummating an intuitive love and creating their own destinies in a conformist culture, and emerging triumphant.