This movie has been praised to the skies already, and I’m not sure what I have to add to the hosannas. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, it is a visually beautiful, meticulously designed and composed, magnificently acted story about two women who fall in love in 1951, when lesbian relationships were essentially illegal. Cate Blanchett is the title character — an upper class woman whose marriage is already on the rocks when the film begins. Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara) in a department story while shopping for a Christmas present for her young daughter and invites Therese out to lunch. Therese is being pursued by a man who wants to marry her and is also being hit on by other men, while she seems to be uncertain what she wants or why she doesn’t want what’s being offered her. Carol has had an affair in the past with her childhood friend, Abby, but they have returned to being just friends. Carol’s husband, Harge, is still in love with her and desperately trying to keep their marriage together despite Carol’s complete disinterest. Things eventually come to a head around Christmas, and Carol and Therese head off on a road trip to discover what there is between them.
There are a lot of obstacles to their love in 1951, but one of the things the film does very well is to treat all the characters sympathetically, even when they are being selfish jerks. It’s a romance, but it’s also a melodrama, in the sense that it’s about women trapped in social roles that make them very unhappy. However, and this is probably a spoiler unless you’ve read the novel, the other striking thing about this film is that it doesn’t end tragically, as so many people expect from a lesbian story set in the ’50s. In fact, it has a more or less happy ending, although Carol is still being blocked from seeing her daughter as much as she wants to. I’m told that Highsmith’s novel was controversial at the time because it refused to conform to the tragic narrative arc such stories were expected to take at the time.
The only thing that bugged me about Carol is that I’d just watched Haynes’ 2011 TV miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce (another melodrama with an unexpectedly happyish ending), and the music Carter Burwell wrote for the two films struck me as essentially identical. It’s good music, but it sounded overly familiar. But that’s a tiny complaint about a film I otherwise found impressively powerful and moving. Definitely one of the best movies of the year, even on a single viewing. Highly recommended.