Women in love
Carol’s leading ladies garner well-deserved Oscar nominations
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is young and single and still trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a well-to-do married woman and mother, is less and less inclined to conceal her discontent with her marriage and her role of matronly housewife in a swanky suburb.
In Todd Haynes’ Carol, adapted from a semi- autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith, these two meet, circa 1952, in the Manhattan department store where Therese clerks, and almost instantly, a strong mutual attraction becomes evident. Soon, that attraction blossoms into a smoldering romance, and Carol takes powerful shape as a drama of passions hindered (but not defeated) by social proprieties and gender stereotypes.
Haynes and co-scenarist Phyllis Nagy treat all this as, more or less simultaneously, a love story and a social document, with the former prevailing over the latter by the smallest of margins. The love story gains considerable power from its stoical resistance to the tragic potential that resides in any tale of thwarted and/or unrequited love. As a final mysteriously defiant close-up seems to suggest, the flame of that resistance is never fully extinguished between Carol and Therese.
As a period piece, Carol steers clear of shopworn clichés about the ’50s, while also presenting a stingingly intricate picture of how these particular characters navigated the sometimes treacherous territory between social acceptance and private emotion. The ’50s of this film are stuffy but not necessarily suffocating; rigid and gray, but not without real color and flash; hidebound but also bristling with potential for something livelier and more free.
The Oscar-nominated performances of Blanchett and Mara are very nicely attuned to the quiet volatility that is a hallmark of the film’s characterizations. Something like that fine-tuned subtlety is also at work in two key supporting performances—Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol’s lifelong best friend (and former lover), and John Magaro as Dannie McElroy, the most supportive (and least presumptuous) of Therese’s male friends.
The latter two signal the importance of friendship in the film’s undercutting of conventional relationships. The love story is supreme, but friendship is paramount for everyday survival.