Emotional Health · Film & Television · Marriage & Life Partners

Movie Review: ‘Carol’ — A Love Story

It is striking how little fuss has been made, in fact, about Carol, a film with two major stars as homosexual lovers, in contrast to Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s 2010 film about two men, played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in a taboo gay relationship. That film, also beautifully made, won Lee an Oscar for best director, but it generated considerable media attention because of its subject matter alone. Maybe that film was one of the very things that changed the culture so that subsequent films, like Carol, could be made without much fanfare. But there’s no question that a lot of progress has been made in 10 years. Gay marriage is the law of the land and homosexual characters are ubiquitous in TV shows and movies. Even transgender issues have made their appearance in mainstream culture with characters on shows such as Orange Is the New Black, and Transparent — usually played by transgender actors.

Another difference from Brokeback Mountain is that in Carol, despite the danger and difficulty their relationship causes them, the lovers do not experience internal conflict or shame about their feelings for each other. For different reasons, both women are immune to self-recrimination, if not self-doubt. As Cate Blanchett plays her, Carol is a genuine adult: poised, and grounded. Her fully realized sense of herself is clearly one of the things that draws the younger woman to her. When Abby asks Carol if she knows what’s she doing by getting involved with Therese, Carol replies, “I never did,” but with a sly smile that belies her comment.

In contrast, it is a revelation to see Rooney Mara’s character, Therese, unselfconsciously accept and acknowledge her feelings as they grow. In her youth and inexperience, she is too innocent to have developed much of a preconceived notion about homosexuality. Once her feelings develop, she does not put a label on them, or judge them. And because her longing is infused with the happiness she feels from being truly in love for the first time, she does not experience any conflict about it. Further, she has Carol to lead the way.

However, by the time the affair fully develops, Therese is as much the instigator as Carol. The restraint of the lovers, as they travel by car through the bleak Midwestern winter landscape, only adds to the piquancy of the drama when they finally succumb to each other. But the scene has all the more depth for having convinced the characters, as well as the audience, that they are doing the right thing, the inevitable thing.

The film that Carol most resembles is another great story of forbidden romance, David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), in which two strangers, both married, meet by chance and fall deeply, “violently” (in the words of the female character) in love. David Lean is best known for his lavishly beautiful epic movies, like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.  Yet this quiet black and white film, from a script by Noel Coward, is one of his best loved. Leaving no room for doubt, Haynes makes an explicit nod to Lean’s masterful opening scene when you meet the lovers at the penultimate moment of their farewell scene. Just as in Brief Encounter, in Carol a clumsy but well-meaning acquaintance interrupts the pair as they are parting for what may be the last time. In both films, the scene is infinitely enriched by the end of the film when you see it again, from a new perspective, having learned over the course of the past two hours how very meaningful each moment of contact is to the two lovers.

(Spoiler  alert ahead)

The difference is that Lean’s film was made in the ’40s, when illicit love could not be tolerated. The lovers must part, or at the very least be punished, and so they were. The big surprise in Carol, as it was in Highsmith’s original book, was that a hopeful ending is implied. For this reason, (among others) the novel was apparently an “underground classic” and a complete anomaly in gay literature. It was certainly an unusual outcome for the era. Gay lovers, happily ever after, no shame? It may have been a fairy tale then, but now, it’s just another love story, and a very good one indeed.

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