For whatever reason, the film industry has never done well with lesbian romance. Whether it is a film built explicitly on an exploitative premise (My Summer of Love) or one made with passion but with a deficiency of talent (Itty Bitty Titty Committee), lesbians just seem underrepresented with quality motion pictures even within the niche area of gay and lesbian targeted romances. Even films with mainstream notoriety such as Blue Is The Warmest Color turn out remarkably disappointing when actually scrutinized as more than a representation of on-screen diversity. Fortunately, Carol does not disappoint; it is a great love story that hinges entirely on the nuanced performances of its cast, particularly its two leads.
Therese (Rooney Mara) is working as a toy store clerk in 1952 when from across the store she notices a striking woman whom we will later come to know as Carol (Cate Blanchett). The two women have obvious chemistry from the start, and minor interactions begin to build toward something more as a friendship and eventual romance blossom. This results in Therese finding her own assertive voice and finding an undiscovered confidence through her newfound sexuality, yet Carol isn’t simply a catalyst for Therese’s development. Carol is in the middle of a strained divorce with her husband that threatens to alienate her relationship with her young daughter if her husband can convince the court that, as a sexual deviant, she is unfit to parent.
As far as the romance itself is concerned, the portrayal is spot-on, a slow burn that feels like the natural development of a relationship. Mara and Blanchett will deservedly be recognized as two of this year’s best actresses, as the body language they exhibit with one another is not only subtle but immediately communicative, as it well should be considering that the time period in which their characters live does not allow for open sexual flirtation with members of the same sex. Mara in particular does an excellent job of portraying a subtle insecurity befitting of one who is finding new emotions alien to her but is scared to voice those concerns, and Blanchett is equally fascinating as a woman who has to decide between being true to herself and suppressing her identity in order to have a relationship with her child.
The portrayal of men in this film is also astoundingly complex, as Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) are far from the stock abuse caricatures they could have been in a lesser film. Richard is the personification of the nice guy trope, the man who thinks that his careful celibate courtship of Therese will one day reward him with marriage and sexual intimacy; he doesn’t have bad intentions, but his view of women as people is certainly skewed so as to perceive them as prizes for kindness. Similarly, Harge is completely dumbstruck by the possibility that Carol could reject his love for that of, not another man, but women, making him entirely insecure in his ability to control his life and raise his child. Though the men of this film might be called villains for this instigation of the film’s conflicts, they aren’t one-dimensional and are sympathetic in their lack of education and context in seeing lesbian relationships as legitimate.
Even without all the extravagance of the film’s setting and the commentary on the social perception of lesbian identity, Carol would excel as a beautifully told romance, the kind that could never be emulated by the mindless portrayal of beautiful people kissing in the rain seen in any Nicholas Sparks production. This is a story of interesting characters navigating treacherous waters together in order to find a way to make love work in a time and place that is openly hostile to them doing so, but without one single villainous entity on which to blame that hostility. I think I’ve been using the phrase “best of the year” too often as of late (because this is an AMAZING year for movies), but this film is definitely among my favorites this year. I just have to think long and hard about its competition to tell if it breaks into my top ten.