That tentativeness continues well into the relationship. When they take their first car ride, Haynes pods down the dialogue, puts the music up front, and plays the scene in tight close-ups; it doesn’t matter what they’re saying, but how they’re listening, with longing eyes and knowing smiles and hesitant, grazing touches. They continue to quietly circle each other during an impromptu road trip, in the car and in hotel rooms, both afraid to take the plunge they so desperately desire.
What happens after that is for you to discover; suffice it to say that the film, like the novel it’s based on, doesn’t traffic in the kind of pay-for-your-sins tragedy which stifled so much queer art of the era, nor does it make easy heroes or villains of anyone involved. Therese’s sorta-boyfriend is ignorant, but not altogether bad; Harge is rendered (in no small part by Chandler’s sensitive playing) less as evil than hurt, and his scenes get at the way the failed relationship has wounded his fragile ‘50s masculinity, as well as the brutishness he uses to cover it. “We’re not ugly people,” Carol tells him at a key moment, and she’s right — he’s a product of his time. And times change.
The performances are predictably astonishing; Mara has a way of conveying the fullness of her character in an offhand line reading, and the variations in Blanchett’s tight smile tell, in their own way, the film’s entire story. The picture is gorgeous, which is no surprise from Mr. Haynes — lushly photographed by Lachman (yet in grain-pushing Super16, to keep the image from seeming too immaculate, its New York streets a noticeable contrast to Heaven’s squeaky-clean Sirkian suburbs), magnificently costumed by Sandy Powell, every car gleaming, every tchotchke in place. These rooms and stores seem to close in on our heroines; ultimately, they cannot contain them.
Late in their road trip, Carol and Therese spend New Year’s Eve together. Carol says she’s always suffered through the holiday at business parties, with her husband. Therese replies, “I always spend New Year’s alone… in crowds.” At its heart, Carol is a movie about that feeling, and about finding a respite from it — even if only for a moment.
Carol screens this week at the New York Film Festival. It opens November 20 in limited release.