The 1950s was an era of unprecedented prosperity and hope. Increased wealth, conspicuous consumption, and booming industry were the hallmarks of post-WWII America. Cars, in particular, had become the physical embodiment of the American dream; powerful machines built by proud, hard-working men and women, who were basking in the triumphant glow of global victory. Cars transported the luckiest people in the world on boundless journeys, the open road a symbol of the bright and exciting future that lay ahead.
But in the 1950s, the luckiest people in the world were predominantly white, heterosexual, American men. For most everyone else, the dream was still out of reach.
Carol tells a story of forbidden love that is very much a reflection of its times, but like the most heart-wrenching and universal love stories, it is timeless. The titular Carol is an upper class wife and mother who falls in love with a shop-girl named Therese. Though Carol and her husband Harge are estranged and planning to divorce, her indiscretion drives Harge to force an ultimatum: break off the affair and cancel the divorce or lose custody of their young daughter, Rindy.
Director Todd Haynes has covered themes of longing and loss before, most notably in 2002’s Far From Heaven and the 2011 mini-series Mildred Pierce, which both featured female protagonists struggling to overcome the restrictive cultural expectations that were the norm in the not-so-distant past. Indeed, in 1948 when author Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel, The Price of Salt, upon which Carol is based, her publishers refused it and she had to resubmit it using a pseudonym. And though Carol explores themes of class, parental rights, and homosexuality, it is first and foremost a love story.
Therese is working at a department store when she first sees Carol shopping for Christmas toys for her daughter. In a display case, hundreds of dolls are behind glass, but the doll Carol wants is sold out. Therese recommends a train set instead. Both women could be display case dolls themselves; Cate Blanchett’s Carol, is a cool and elegant Barbie to Rooney Mara’s younger, wide-eyed kewpie doll. They are cautious and mannered - neither wanting to be the first to break the character she has carefully constructed for herself.
In a time when keeping up appearances was paramount, Haynes created a sumptuous visual landscape for his characters to inhabit.
The costumes, hair, make-up, set decoration, and props are period perfect, yes, but the art direction in general is mesmerizing. The characters seem to constantly interact with reflective surfaces, like store and apartment windows, mirrors, and in particular, the windows of cars. It’s a dream-like effect that mimics both the state of being in love, and the pain of love lost. The glass provides a window into their lives as well as a barrier. They can only come so close to being themselves without letting the rest of the world see them for who they really are.
The cars you provided, like Carol’s Deluxe Packard, her best friend Abby’s convertible, Harge’s black Cadillac (with a driver), and the yellow cabs Therese takes, illustrate their literal and figurative mobility. When Harge takes Rindy away from Carol prior to their first custody hearing, Carol decides to get in her car and drive, “wherever the car will take me”. Therese joins her on this journey west, and she and Carol grow closer to one another the way people do when confined together on a road trip. With every pit stop at a roadside diner or a motel, they begin to drop pretenses and revel in the freedom that comes from this break in their regular lives; the freedom of being able to get behind the wheel and drive away from your problems. Except, in the case of Carol and Therese, their problems follow them.
It’s a joy to see female characters written with such depth and played so achingly well by actors at the top of their game. We’ve been spoiled by Cate Blanchett, having come to expect her to deliver award-worthy performances, and she deserves every accolade for playing Carol with such restrained determination. But it’s Rooney Mara’s Therese who seems to grow before our very eyes, and her portrayal of a young woman coming into adulthood is both gut-wrenching and inspiring.
Carol’s Packard is where Therese comes of age, and experiences a full range of emotions, from elation to despair. Anyone who has been in love and felt the all-consuming anguish of a broken heart, will understand that it’s a rare gift to travel the road of self-discovery and make it to the other side intact. Carol itself is a rare cinematic gift, and it was a privilege to follow these characters on their journey.