Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a young clerk at the doll counter in the toy section of the Frankenberg’s department store in New York. During Christmastime, she spies a refined, older woman, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), shopping for a gift for her daughter. When Carol leaves her gloves behind, it creates the perfect opportunity for Therese to start up an interaction; but before the shy shopgirl can make a significant first move, Carol invites her to lunch, ostensibly to thank her for recommending a train set purchase.
When the two meet, it’s revealed that Carol is divorced from Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese deals with the routines of an amorous suitor named Richard (Jake Lacy). But neither one has much interest in their male companions – or the customary social situations they find themselves mired in. Instead, as they continue to arrange daytime rendezvouses to dine or drive or chat, they must thwart the interferences and advances of the men in their lives to focus on bolstering a romantic relationship – the kind that won’t be readily accepted in mid-century America, and the kind that can be used against Carol in a custody battle for her daughter.
Like “Spotlight” earlier this year, “Carol” possesses a striking sense of reserve, of understatement. It’s not immediately apparent what the story will hold for the various characters that are introduced, but their subtle actions betray a concealment of motives, intentions, and realizations. The film goes first for the establishment of a realistic environment (1950s New York) before building characters through observation over dialogue, imagery over spoken confirmations. This is also aided by Carter Burwell’s gentle piano melodies and violin motifs.
Analyzing the struggle between love for a child and love for a partner – in a not-so-distant past when the morality of lesbianism was also an issue of legality – makes for a dramatic experience when the choice isn’t an issue of right or wrong. While other mainstream films have examined same-sex relationships during equally unaccommodating time periods, “Carol” is careful to paint a portrait of love in general, without highlighting specific differences in sexuality (though it does indulge in a sex scene for those audiences who can’t imagine a romance without accompanying visuals). There also exists a certain irony in the prejudices the duo encounter just for being two women in the close proximities of dinner tables and hotel check-in desks, despite their refusal to display obvious affection in public settings.
In the end, with a touch of clever editing (the typical gimmick of showing scenes out-of-order, but here repeated with new information for an unusually powerful effect), smart storytelling, and strict adherence to an artistic restraint, “Carol” becomes both an entertaining endeavor and a poignant message about love’s ability to overcome adversity. And, in its build to an in-the-moment climax that resolves only immediate happiness to remain ambiguous about the future (really, the entirety of their slice-of-life experiences inhabit only the length of their love affair – there is no concern with the before or after), it’s highly satisfying. Undoubtedly, Blanchett, Mara, and director Todd Haynes (“Poison,” “Safe,” and “Far from Heaven”), working from Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” (possessing an oft-debated title far more complex than “Carol”), will receive plenty of attention during awards season.