“Ask me things, please.” The eager request, posed gently by the titular character in Todd Haynes’s film Carol, embodies the spellbinding atmosphere of the film. Its main characters, Carol and Therese (played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, respectively), begin to question their claustrophobic, routine lives. Both open and concealed, dangerous yet careful, Carol juxtaposes daring pursuits of love and independence with the tedium of everyday life as it follows Carol and Therese searching for when, where, and how they might be free to love one another.
Carol, set in 1950’s Manhattan, explores the lives of two women living in distinctly different worlds. Carol Aird is a glamorous soon-to-be divorcee and a mother to a little girl, Rindy. She meets Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer and department store clerk, while shopping for her daughter’s Christmas gift. The attraction is immediate, as Carol and Therese relentlessly pursue each other’s company. They lunch together, listen to music, and go on a cross-country road trip—their love brewing silently all the while. Nevertheless, their attempts at a future together are constantly interrupted by Carol’s past as her soon-to-be-ex-husband (played by Kyle Chandler) does everything in his power to separate Carol from Therese and reunite with her, claiming he still loves her.
Framed by the delicate score and period cinematography, Carol highlights the everlasting beauty of discovering oneself through discovering your love for another. Emboldened by Mara and Blanchett’s rich performances, it is a romance film that never fails to recognize the importance of the individual. Therese must embrace her evolving sexuality and nascent artistic talents whilst Carol must contend with the realities of motherhood and family life; falling in love does not relieve them of the rest of their obligations. Mara’s performance matches veteran actress Blanchett every step of the way. The two are a pair to be reckoned with, rounding out the film with their undeniable, electrifying chemistry.
The rich screenplay provides a great adaptation of the 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, and is expertly aided by Haynes’s attentive direction. Carol’s rare fault is that it is at times too quiet, as the film’s peak dramatic moments are a bit muted, lacking heightened anticipation and energy. Yet, it is this same quiet tone that allows Carol and Therese’s romance to blossom naturally throughout the rest of the film. We are graciously given a voyeuristic look into the life they build together.
Carol opens its viewers up to explore the dynamics of love and self-discovery. We revel in any moment the two women share with one another, constantly aware of all there is at stake in conservative 1950’s New York. An especially striking moment in the film comes during a conversation between Carol and her ex-lover/best friend Abby (played rivetingly by Sarah Paulson). Questioning her pursuit of Therese, Abby says to Carol, “Tell me you know what you’re doing,” to which Carol responds, “I don’t. I never did.” The absolute honesty and abandon spoken from Carol’s exquisitely red painted lips reveal the realities of love and adulthood: perhaps we’ll never be ready for either, but we still must jump into them.
Carol is a well-crafted examination of self-love, romantic love, and the risks that come with attending to both.