Trapped behind a toy counter in a Manhattan 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 locks eyes with a statuesque beauty: it’s Cate Blanchett (Carol), a blue-blooded 1950s socialite. Circling closer to the young store clerk’s coop, she orders gifts to be delivered, and forgets (deliberately?) her gloves.
When Therese posts them on, Blanchett invites her to lunch. Their acquaintance becomes a forbidden love affair – personally risky, especially if Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has anything to do with it. Seething over his wife’s affair with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), he seeks custody of their infant daughter.
Hounded by her Harge-faced husband’s private investigators, Blanchett is a free spirit, betraying only faint frustration for her critics. There’s definitely something vulpine and predatory about her. Rooney Mara, rigid with awkwardness and bored with her boyfriend (she’s a lesbian, mate) flourishes into a self-possessed woman.
The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel (written from Therese’s perspective; Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay gives equal time to both characters) which was groundbreaking in its depiction of a homosexual romance that did not end tragically.
Todd Haynes’ restrained and elegant film feels like a cold, bittersweet Christmas. It’s like stepping through a closet of fur coats into Narnia; the two lovers winter princesses in a repressive fairy tale land. Every frame is beautiful from the perspective of a photographer, Carol’s house is extraordinary. However..it is slow, and the lack of right-on wrath may make it too removed for some.