There’s a scene in Carol where Therese (Rooney Mara) is seated alone at small cafe table. A male character we’ve met briefly spots her and immediately sits across from her, uninvited.
Over his shoulder, we see Carol (Cate Blanchett) return to the room, register his presence, pull up a chair, and seat herself between them. They have their own intimate conversation in the spaces between his attempts to engage, not that he appears to notice.
(I’m pretty sure I said “UGH MEN” out loud right there in the theater.)
The scene beautifully encapsulated up a small, clear theme of the film, that of men being wholly disinterested in and unaffected by the desires of women, and women fitting themselves into the unused spaces left over. It appeared across the board, from men malevolent or obtuse, for whom what (or even *that*!) a woman might want was so irrelevant as to not even be considered. The desires of women are not ignored or discarded, because that would at least imply a level of acknowledgment. That a woman has wants and needs outside of what a man expects of her is not even on the radar of the men of Carol.
This has been Therese’s life: allowing men to take up space around her until she works out who she is and what she might want. This has been Carol’s life: seeing men take what they want and looking for quiet ways to assert herself in space.
Therese is seeing Richard (Jake Lacy), and though she is wholly non-committal in all the interactions we see, none of this registers with him. He makes plans for a future that she has never agreed to, another man deciding what a woman’s life should be. Of course she’ll go to Europe with him, of course she’ll spend the holidays with his family, of course they’ll get married. Of course. Because that’s what he wants.
Carol is married to Harge, played by Kyle Chandler in another feat of impeccable casting. Chandler evokes the aura of Coach Taylor, tough, kind, and moral, whereas Lacy is best known to me as the manic pixie dream boy of Obvious Child. They’d both be the hero of any other story, with their classic white boy good looks and their upstanding moral characters, but in Carol they are obstructions, building mazes of inflicted desire around Carol and Therese. Harge, in the steps he takes to separate Carol from her daughter, is malevolent in his morality.
Carol is based on the novel The Price of Salt, published by Patricia Highsmith under the name Claire Morgan in 1952, a once-contemporary story now a period film. It’s been described as the first lesbian novel with a hopeful ending, and while that feels true, it does overlook a significant struggle of the story, that of Carol to remain a part of her daughter’s life.
It is magical to see a lush, swoony, big screen romance between women. It’s at once the sort of story we see all the time, the star-crossed lovers with the world trying to tear them apart, and yet it’s also beautifully queer, two women choosing the life they want to live, not the life they’ve been directed into. It’s a prestige picture, a classic romance with Rooney Mara looking for all the world like Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina (lest we think the Hollywood age gap at all a new thing, Bogart was 30 years her senior.) It’s a Christmas movie and an American road movie and I hope it wins all of the awards.