Carol won't be so easy to forget. Leaving the theater, waking up the next day, even after you've transitioned back into real life, it will likely linger in your mind. And that's because Carol, which will surely go down as one of the greatest cinematic portrayals of love, is a film built and perfected on subtext. Moments and meaning will unravel for a long while afterwards, attaching significance to situations in your own life. Carol is a love story between two women in the 1950s who come from different societies and generations—probably not a circumstance many of us can relate to—but its emotional quality is universal, and that's what makes this period piece feel timeless.
To call Carol a Christmas miracle feels like a gaudy understatement, but that's sort of exactly what it is. For film lovers, the holiday season movie marks the return of acclaimed director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I'm Not There, Velvet Goldmine) after his eight-year hiatus, as he takes on screenwriter Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the author behind The Talented Mr. Ripley and Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train. To witness the chemistry of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is another gift of its own. And shot on glorious 16mm, Carol is presented through a gorgeous nostalgic filter, brought to life by the onscreen presence of its two leading ladies.
Subtext makes itself a key character even from the very first encounter between these two, department store girl Therese Belivet (Mara) and Carol Aird (Blanchett), a housewife on the brink of divorce. They meet at Therese's place of work, when Carol sashays through the store with a fur coat and an impossible air of luxury, looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for her four-year-old daughter Rindy. A lingering look from Therese, as her eyes follow Carol's movements, beckons Carol to her table. On the surface it feels like a normal customer-worker interaction: Carol asks for a recommendation, Therese suggests the train set, Carol purchases it, fills out the delivery order, and leaves. But Todd Haynes, being the meticulous and intentional director he is, lets things spell out in unspoken moments. He makes poetry out of longing glances and gestures, while Nagy packs the space between the lines with desires hesitant to be muttered. Beneath their cordiality there is a dance that happens, as Carol and Therese read that slight change in the air. It's so subtle that it would feel insignificant if it weren't for Haynes' unique sensibility of enclosing us in their intimate bubble. Even after that seemingly nothing of a meeting, everything is different, even just in the way Therese, previously a disenchanted salesgirl in a Santa hat, looks like she's been woken up by a feeling inside her she didn't know she had.
Though Carol is the title of the film and Cate Blanchett gets first billing, this is very much Therese's story, as we experience desire through her eyes. Haynes makes Therese's gaze even literal by making her an aspiring photographer (Carol, of course, ends up being the subject of many of Therese's works). Carol, through Therese's lens and thus ours, is shown as the cool and confident older woman who knows what she wants. At their first lunch together, Carol, without hesitation, orders a creamed spinach over poached eggs and a dry martini with an olive. Therese orders the exact same thing, and then later, while talking about her hesitance to marry her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), admits that she doesn't even know what she wants to order for lunch. In moments like these Therese feels unmistakably young, with her desires left to be navigated, and most of all, through her youth and experience, she becomes the embodiment of the uncertainty we feel in love. More often than not, being in love is uncomfortable and unfathomable, and it becomes even more so in Carol, whose 1950s setting (when queerness was still very much hush-hush) leaves a lot more to be read between the lines. It must be nothing but friendship... But what if it's more than that?
The relationship between Carol and Therese starts with a pair of gloves. The fateful pair of gloves Carol leaves behind at the department store (whether she did this on purpose or not will always be up for question) leads Therese to track her down, and then to Carol repaying her with the aforementioned lunch date. The lunch date leads to Sunday visits, and then eventually to a road trip where the lines become blurred. But during the days leading up to the climactic act of love, everything is uncertain. You can see it consuming Therese, and even messing with her head. She asks her boyfriend if he's ever been with a man before and if homosexuality even is a real thing—a question that would not have been so absurd for a young girl back then who has never really been introduced to it. Carol, as it turns out, has had experience with a woman before—before her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) there was Abby (Sarah Paulson), now godmother to Carol's daughter. Her past doesn't add much certainty to her future with Therese, though, as their feelings go unexpressed for so long. Therese clearly loves the company of Carol but the lack of concrete answers regarding the possibility of romance makes Carol so aching and all too real. Even when we know what the result will be.
During their momentous road trip together—one that would change both their lives—Carol and Therese spend night after night in the same hotel room but on separate beds, tension still hanging thick in the air. They can get away with traveling and bunking together without raising any suspicion because everyone assumes they are just two friends. They continue to operate under that assumption, only communicating through the unspoken, until the eventful night of intimacy Therese and Carol share. But the bliss of that night doesn't stay too long into the morning before complications arise—let's just say timing is the devil—leaving Therese utterly crushed.
Thankfully, Carol isn't your clichéd queer tragedy. After being apart for some time, Carol asks Therese out to dinner, and the film returns to its opening sequence of them sitting across from each other at a hotel bar. This time, there's context and the situation is clearer. What's also clear is that the position of vulnerability has shifted—to Carol—solidifying the fact that love was never unrequited for either of these characters, and that desire had been cast from both sides. Now it's Carol longing for Therese, who holds the ball in her court in the last rooting moments of the film. Their gazes are held, quietly but forcefully. Appropriately, as it always were, no words need be exchanged—but this time around, uncertainty has been replaced with certainty.