There can be a preoccupation and false assumptions with any association or suggestion of lesbian related material. What I have always found fascinating based upon my graduate thesis involved the evolution of the heterosexual male defined term of “a sexually aggressive female” in the mid 19th century France to the contemporary classification within “female homosexuality” (I examined social factors contributing to Courbet’s The Sleepers (1866) and The Origin of the World (1866)). Even Victorian society struggled to deal with romantic female friendship and expressed great discomfort over the outpouring of passion found in the letters. Literary wise individuals will ponder on Sarah Waters epic novel The Paying Guests (2014), but this was more the exception than the norm. Underneath this often male fear is the bewilderment that some women may not require the company of men, and instead, find solace and understanding in a person that may be a fellow female. While sexual discrimination has not been erased, it has dissipated in contemporary times. In Carol, viewers feel the incredible tension and suffocation of these characters who want to lead an authentic and touching life, yet are condemned and made powerless in the 1950s.
Rooney Mara as Therese big-faced and eyed reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn acts subtly in her shopgirl role which matches the grace found in Cate Blanchett as Carol. A brimming sexuality known to Carol, yet unfamiliar to Therese electrifies the first meeting. On the surface, both Carol and Therese have expected markers of the heterosexual life whether implied by a boyfriend, child or husband. Experienced Carol draws Therese in and out through slow, calculated, open romantic actions thanks to time shared together. Since these are the Eisenhower years (mid 1950s), society and particularly men cannot let this type of situation persist without scrutiny and obstacles. As a result of Carol’s loveless marriage being on fragile ground with her intentions to divorce, her possessive husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) cannot process the perceived blows to his masculinity and seeks to discredit Carol’s character. Harge has imagined a more elaborate sexual history with women undertaken by Carol than reality and any whiff of female friendship sends him into a frenzy. In his stalking and predatory way of being, audiences sympathize with Carol’s caged feeling.
The threat element embodied by Harge adds stakes to this budding romance between Therese and Carol. This romantic tale with thriller aspects is a known pattern of Patricia Highsmith. Her novel The Price of Salt (1952) is the basis for Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015). Highsmith is a film adaption favorite with The Talented Mr. Ripley (film 1999; book 1955) as another example of this narrative style and merely a small selection of many extensions of her original literary content.
What should not be overlooked is the depths explored in the bond shared between Therese and Carol. Therese may be quieter in displayed energy, but her photographic eye and longing to be seen is readily apparent. Even though Carol has past experiences to build upon, Therese’s ability to consume not only Carol’s personality yet also her vulnerability challenges any flippant notions Carol may have initially conceived about the relationship. In this way, Therese’s silence coupled with an open heart can be misconstrued as a weakness, are a strength in fact. Carol encourages Therese’s artistic ambitions knowing that one’s identity outside of relationships needs to have fertile ground to grow for a person to be not as entrapped.
For as much as nostalgia paints the 1950s in ignorant suburban consumerism, the reality is painstaking to witness. Observing the lack of legal rights ascribed to women demonstrates how easily the law could be perverted reduce a woman to servitude. I shall leave the conclusion for audiences, but with any small victory there are countless casualties for these characters.
Nominations for the Academy Awards and Golden Globes of 2016 reinforce any desire to watch this cinematic production.