Carol is a love story that doesn’t act as a love story until halfway through the film – because its protagonists themselves don’t realise it until then.
Carol and Therese could not be more different. The eponymous protagonist is an affluent, assured middle-aged mother and wife in the midst of a cold war of a divorce. Therese is a temp shop girl in the toy section of a department store.
Everything about their first encounter, though not the first encounter in the order of the film, reads like a seduction. Every word Carol speaks to Therese feels calculated, intended to pique interest – suggestive, but not enough as to appear intentional. Her fine garments and deep red lipstick neatly juxtaposes Therese’s mute green attire and ridiculous Santa hat – “holidays’ greetings from the management”. Everything is meant to gently underscore that these women are not equals.
An expensive purchase later, Carol leaves her delivery address and her gloves – an early example of something innocuous packing much deeper meanings. They are a subtle invitation, an extended hand, to enter into Carol’s world. Once Therese accepts, Carol whisks her away to a country house.
But an unexpected appearance by Carol’s husband, Harge, throws a spanner in the works, kick-starting a chain reaction that takes Carol and Therese’s relationship in a different direction. What was meant to be a fleeting affair has now become an escape from suffocation, both by a husband and a society that wishes to deny Carol her true self.
For Therese, the relationship is equally layered. What began as a curious feeling quickly grows into a “girl crush”, as put by her increasingly frustrated and confused fiancé, until it’s no longer a crush, but something much deeper. Carol is like a drug to Therese – she brings colour to her life. When she whisks Therese away to the country house, they drive through a tunnel and in that time colours mix, images haze, music fades. Therese is high on Carol and is fully embracing it.
Their relationship moves from seedy motel to the refinery of a five-star hotel, until such materialistic matters become irrelevant and they consummate their love on a single bed of another non-descript seedy motel somewhere in the Midwest.
Throughout the film, the viewer is meant to question whether these two women were meant to end up together, reflecting the feelings readers of the original source, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, to whom a happy ending in a story about lesbians was almost unheard of.
After all, how could they end up together? As their relationship grows, so do the dangers – Carol risks losing her child, wealth and social standing, and Therese in turn risks being hurt by falling in love with someone who may be prevented from reciprocating.
Throughout the film you’re meant to ask whether their relationship was fate, chance or choice and Haynes is careful to allow the viewer to consider the characters’ motivations for themselves.
By the end, however, you don’t really care what brought Carol and Therese together, you’re just sure as hell glad it happened. 5/5