Eye to eye contact: start point of Rooney Mara’s and Cate Blanchett’s exquisite screen pairing

Falling in love raises our spirits and brightens our perception of all we survey, so what better than to wrap it in the delicious chill of the snowbound sparkle of the New York ‘holiday’ season?


Staff have been instructed to wear Santa hats at Frankenberg’s Department Store in Manhattan. As they line up to start the day, they are each wished ‘Compliments of the Season’ as they are given one to wear. Yet in the dolls section of the lavishly decorated Winter Wonderland of Toys, one young woman stands behind the counter minus hers – until she is told off for being hat-free. Therese (a luminous Rooney Mara) is guarded by sentries of expensive baby and girl dolls, yet she seems a dreamy young woman out of sorts with this world: she eats alone in the canteen too.

Until, one day across the crowded floor her eyes latch on to the lady in the fur coat who appears so stylish and wealthy. Their paths cross when the older woman (a stately Cate Blanchett) seeks advise about a gift to buy her young daughter – Therese suggests a trainset – and the two women exchange small talk. Before she turns to go, the shopper tells the shopgirl, ‘I like your hat.’ Moments later, from the melee of the crowd, she will turn her head and the pair exchange a glance. Later, in a letter, long after these two have had a wintertime affair, the older woman, Carol will write: ‘There is no such thing as an accident‘. On their very first meeting, it turns out she has left her kid leather gloves on the glass counter, and they will need returning.

Sumptuous Afterglow That Tempts The Heart

Todd Haynes sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel,The Price Of Salt (1952) covers similar ground to his earlier Far From Heaven (2002) Our Twenty First Century sensibilities are brought to bear on the story of same-sex desire during a less liberal era. The rich Douglas Sirk-inspired colourwash and Fifties’ settings of both Hayne films is balanced by the transparency of relationships which were only opaquely depicted in pictures from that period.

The initial setting inside a lavish department store captures the potential magic of such places at this time of year (providing the store manager has the decorative imagination). Frankenberg’s is a luxury temple of tinsel and sparkle which draws the shopper and leaves an afterglow in their minds when they leave. Both women have the same effect on each other.

Carol Aird is in a stilted, indifferent marriage that is hurtling towards divorce, while Therese Belivet is a frustrated photographer yearning to jump careers. The two women seem to recognise something in the other that the younger Therese cannot yet verbalise. She is dating Richard (the upright, 50s’-faced Jake Lacey) but is unsure what she wants from life. ‘Would you like to marry him?’ enquires Carol. ‘I barely even know what to order for lunch,’ the shopgirl replies. As much as Carol is a tale of deep, painful longing, it is also very funny.

Loving With Uncertainty

Therese is like Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005). While both films are couched as homosexual love stories, both involve a character whose sexuality is not clearly defined. The fatherless Ennis did not seem to know what he really wanted, while Therese admits ‘I never say “No”. I don’t know what I want, and how could I when all I ever do is say “Yes” to everything?’ It is as if she is fearful of missing out on life and its rich experiences. Yet the film is very much about the younger woman’s perception of the glamorous eponymous character, and of her first true experience of being in love. It is Therese watching through the camera viewfinder and writing in her engagement diary for December 21 Sunday: ‘lunch with Carol’.

Carol, meanwhile – as with Ennis’ lover, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) – knows exactly what she wants. Long ago before she married, she was in a relationship with her friend, Abby (Sarah Poulson), and the attention she gives the young shopworker seems predatory. (Later, Abby remarks: ‘She’s young. Tell me you know what you’re doing.’ Carol replies: ‘I don’t. I never did.’)

Trapped And Betrayed By Society’s Expectations

Carol is not a Christmas film per se. However, like The Hunt (2012) and The Apartment (1960), its most significant moments occur during Advent. This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is one where people come wrapped in coats and scarves. (The early Fifties was also an era when everyone wore hats and smoked, providing a fine metaphor for keeping a lid on one’s thoughts and desires while stifling even the air in one’s lungs.) Carol’s and Therese’s affair is one of unpeeling of barriers and defences over the course of the season and into the New Year. Conversely, a lot of the time, characters are shot through windows and behind doors as if they are closed in by society’s expectations.

As with Brokeback Mountain, we are made aware of the emotional impact this affair has on the partners left behind. Carol’s husband, Harge tells his estranged wife as they dance at a Christmas party: ‘You’re always the most beautiful woman in the room’, but his continued adoration for her will never be enough for her. The adoring Richard is potentially setting out on the very same road. Carol is a film about people who are swept along by their feelings and the consequences for good or ill of that – and that includes the menfolk too.

Seasons Of Love And Life Keep Turning

Carol and Therese effectively flee by car to New Jersey for Christmas and later will embark on a road trip. They leave the artificiality of the department store and New York’s decorative lights, and emerge out of the very new New Jersey Turnpike Tunnel from where they will encounter the more natural world. ‘I love the snow. Makes it feel like Christmas, don’t you think?’ Carol points out as she drives. They stop to view real fir trees: Therese snaps Carol with the camera Carol gave her for Christmas. The gift clearly chimes with Therese’s dreams but it is also a challenge to open her eyes and see things differently.

There is an innocent quality about Therese as if she is going along for the ride while open to whatever might transpire. Yet the custody of Carol’s young daughter is at stake, and even as the two women are drawing closer in intimacy, Fate is stacked against them. Snow falls and there is an atmosphere of glittery frostiness yet also a promise of spring in the air as they travel cross country. In a hotel in Waterloo, Iowa they will wish each other a Happy New Year and for the first time they will make love. And it will shortly be followed by deep heartbreak; then reappraisal and renewal for each individual.

Others.will choose to euphemistically dismiss Therese and Carol’s love affair as ‘The events of the winter’. Yet the Christmastide meeting and the enveloping of the couple in all the sensuous shine and magical lighting of the season represented so much more. As Carol later reminds Therese when all seems to have been lost: ‘We gave each other the most breathtaking of gifts.’

Carol went on general release on Friday.

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