Overview: In 1950s New York, a young woman confused about her future falls for an older woman, and the two begin a relationship. The Weinstein Company/StudioCanal; 2015; Rated R; 118 minutes.
Tragic Flaws: Movies about queer relationships, or even just queer characters, don’t traditionally have happy endings. Even today’s supposedly more progressive cinema indulges in this disappointing trope. Films like The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club seem content to merely trade on the tragedy of these characters, treating them with condescending levels of dignity and grace, but never as human beings. Even legitimately great films like Brokeback Mountain fall into this unfortunate category. For decades, Hollywood has sent a clear message: Queer people exist so that “normal” people can weep over their graves, but never as complete individuals. This is one of the many reasons why Carol is such a breath of fresh air. Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) aren’t narratively indebted to the arcs of any straight characters. They aren’t paragons of virtue with irreproachable morality. And, perhaps most significantly, neither of them meet a fateful, calamitous end. Carol allows its leads to be people unto themselves, rather than reactionary objects.
Inwards and Outwards: And what people they are! Mara and Blanchett’s performances are sublime, elegant constructions. Their first scene together is packed with movement subtleties. Carol’s slight squint as she considers Therese for the first time, Therese’s instinctual heart-eyed holding of a clipboard to her chest as Carol leaves, the bare hints of smiles on their faces, where every twitch is the exertion of a force only one of them understands at the time. It’s utterly thrilling to watch, and all the more so for its rarity. “Gay relationships are just the same as straight ones,” is a well-intentioned platitude, but it’s not always true, and it certainly wasn’t during the 1950s. The understated level of communication between Therese and Carol could read as practically telepathic to someone who’s used to the clear and open flirting which was acceptable only for heterosexual couples at the time. Even today, this coding is by necessity the basis for gay relationships, because for so long they could not exist by the language of straight ones. But Carol refuses to translate, even at the risk of alienating a not-insignificant portion of its audience. It doesn’t have its characters speechify about bigotry and homophobia. It’s uninterested in teaching lessons about outsiders to people on the inside. It’s a film for outsiders.
Squeezed: Cinematographer Edward Lachmann augments the lead performances, and is augmented by them, with his overwhelmingly beautiful 16mm compositions. Carol and Therese are constantly trapped by the framing in wide-shots, sequestered and squeezed into tiny corners and shrinking doorways. This impossibility of movement is an obvious signifier of their incapability for romantic expression; that obviousness is overcome by the aforementioned subtleties of the performances, but more vitally by the moments where they’re able to break out. When the two are alone together, they burst free of those confines, their bodies filling the entire frame. These moments of visual catharsis produce some of Carol’s most indelible images. Lachmann shoots these scenes in close-up, rather than staying distant and giving them room to breathe. We can’t forget that even these intimate moments are only achievable through further sequestering. Carol can’t free its characters from the impositions of their society, which is why accusations of progressive pandering, or “male gaze” dismissals from the film’s detractors are so wildly incorrect, but it can and does zoom in and give them a chance to exist on their own terms.
Early on, Carol describes Therese as a girl “flung out of space,” and you could say the same about the film. Queer cinema of this caliber tends to be confined to the indie world, where it necessarily deals with contemporary issues. Mainstream Hollywood has such a long track record of getting this so wrong, right up to this year with The Danish Girl, that Carol seems to come from an alternate universe. I’m unspeakably grateful that this film exists, and that it was made with such tremendous care, precision, and talent.
Overall: Carol is nothing short of a landmark in queer cinema.