Carol isn't the sort of movie we typically cover on Polygon. It's a period drama, set in the early 1950s, about queer women finding one another amid a cruel social climate. It also happens to be one of the best movies of the year, worthy of all the Oscar buzz and hype from critics.
The movie centers on Therese (Rooney Mara), a young shop girl who doesn't quite fit in. When a wealthy woman, Carol (played by Cate Blanchett at her classiest), comes into her life and shows interest — friendship, and maybe, just maybe, something more — it rocks her to her core. There are a lot of complications: family drama; a jealous, vindictive husband on Carol's side (Kyle Chandler); a beloved daughter; an entire society that can't fathom women loving one another in this way. But there is love. Real love. And that's what makes Carol such a knockout.
Amid the drama, Carol appreciates the beauty of the mundane. The everyday features of a person that set your world on fire. They way they dress. They way they move. Cate Blanchett embodies everything about a beautiful, classy, smart lady — what Therese has been dreaming about and didn't even know it — effortlessly. Carol captures the breathless excitement of falling in love, the queasy feeling of being different in a world that cannot abide it, and the pure, boundless beauty of two people finding one another in such a world.
Regardless of how you feel about Todd Haynes' direction in other movies — the melodramatic Far From Heaven particularly comes to mind — his direction is restrained and far more natural here. He gets out of the way of Mara's and Blanchett's performances, which are fantastic. There has already been a great deal of virtual ink spilled on breathlessly recounting just how wonderful both women do in their roles, so I'll simply say this — I believed it. Every glance, every blush, every tiny action felt real, motivated by strong emotion. There's a moment early on in the film, and repeated toward the end, where Carol places her hand on Therese's shoulder. It's a simple gesture, done in the presence of a male friend, in a public place. But what it means — what it really means — is far more intimate than what you'll see in most love scenes in other films.
Carol is important for another reason. It's the first movie expressly about queer women that works on this big, heady, Oscar-buzz-worthy level.
Let me explain: For a long time before I worked at Polygon, I was a queer movie critic. I watched and wrote about dozens and dozens of small indie movies and bigger-budget films that had queer women characters. For a long time, the landscape was pretty grim. I sat through countless hours of well-meaning but poorly made scenes, more horrifically cheesy lesbian poetry and sex scenes set to god-awful acoustic guitar than any human being probably should be subjected to. I watched dozens of throwaway lesbian and bisexual women characters introduced into bigger-budget movies, often written with good intentions, but even more often completely tertiary to the actual movie they were in.
Those of us who wrote about queer women called out for a film about women like Brokeback Mountain — a mainstream success that was specifically about queer characters and, you know, happened to be a really well-made movie. I'm not going to lie, we totally called this holy grail project "Dykeback Mountain."
We hit a huge milestone a few years ago in The Kids Are All Right — a movie that generated serious Oscar buzz on its own. But it wasn't quite on Carol's level. The Kids Are All Right did very well, but it wasn't necessarily playing at multiplexes across America. Carol, however, will be. And it deserves to be — to be watched by anyone who loves film, cares about a good story and digs the idea that connection between two human beings is far more important than anything else.
When I went to the theater to see Carol last week, I sat next to two women who were clearly on a date, probably early in their relationship. Whenever anything swoon-worthy happened on-screen, even so small as a smoldering look or a lingering touch, one of these women let out a near-orgasmic sigh. That's how into it she was — how completely enraptured she was by depiction of love and romance. That's real, and important — we go to movies and read stories in order to see ourselves reflected, to experience the emotions that remind us we're alive. I can think of no better way to describe Carol to others — it is so powerful, so important, so real and alive that it makes you forget it's not happening to you.