Why Carol Is Misunderstood

Todd Haynes’s romantic drama isn’t ‘cold.’ It’s a tale of intimacy and repression that dares to imagine a happy ending.


The beginning of Carol flashes forward to the end, detailing a fraught meeting between the film’s title character (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Their encounter seems stiff at first; only later, after the entire story has played out, does its tragic significance become clear. Like many of Carol and Therese’s public meetings, it’s a guarded conversation where both are scared to speak their true feelings. It’s because of this that some critics have called the movie “cold” or “chilly.” But Carol would be better described as a film where feelings run very deep—and its power comes from watching them emerge on the surface, if only for an instant.

The film’s bookended scenes were the one major change asked for by its director, Todd Haynes, from the screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s landmark 1952 lesbian-romance novel The Price of Salt and had tried to get it filmed for many years. Haynes was inspired by David Lean’s Brief Encounter, a 1945 romantic classic about an emotional affair that similarly begins and ends with the same scene, its meaning deepening the second time. There, the romance is forbidden because both individuals are married; in Carol, the obstacle is societal. But Haynes’s genius is in the ways he taps into universal anxieties about love and relationships without ever letting go of the sense of imprisonment that came with being gay in the 1950s.

The film introduces Therese as an introverted shopgirl silently broadcasting a signal of loneliness that no one seems to notice. Carol is the first to sense her sadness and to offer understanding, with the two forging an instant bond that’s entirely non-verbal. Here’s where the “chilliness” comes in—so many of their early interactions are centered around fleeting touches and glances, or pleasant small talk that doesn’t remotely stoop to the level of innuendo.

In analyzing Highsmith’s novel, Haynes hit on a key point—that a writer who usually wrote crime thrillers (like Strangers on a Train and the Tom Ripley series) had encoded this romantic drama with the “same sense of the criminal [mind],” as he explained to Indiewire. The novel captures the inner monologue of someone (Therese) falling in love and trying to figure out if her feelings are reciprocated through every subtle hint she gets. “And the mind is in this extremely productive state that is very much like the criminal mind, imagining every outcome and every possible scenario that could you get caught,” Haynes said. “And in that way it does an extremely good job of linking something extremely universal to something sort of transgressive.”

Carol’s brilliance is exactly that—it never forgets the criminality of what Therese and Carol are doing (Carol’s husband, Harge, uses it against her in their divorce hearings), but aligns it with the terrifying experience of falling for someone without knowing how they feel about you. In their early meetings, Carol projects class and authority, all the way down to her drink order (which Therese awkwardly mimics), but that’s quickly shattered when Therese visits Carol at home and walks into the domestic drama she’s still navigating with Harge. “Oh, that’s bold,” Harge scoffs when he learns who Therese is, and he’s right in a way—but Carol’s boldness is only that she semi-openly tries to court someone she’s interested in rather than locking her feelings away.

It’s in the latter half of the film that the intimacy between Carol and Therese feels especially realized, like when the couple goes on a road trip together, entertaining the fantasy of living in the open while ignoring the fact that they’re practically on the run. And Therese’s devastation when their relationship falls apart should be painfully familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced heartbreak.

On Thursday, Carol won six Oscar nominations. But when it missed out on two of the biggest categories, Best Picture and Best Director, words like “cold” were again bandied around by those trying to figure out why. Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair sagely argued that despite its universality, the film “speaks in a vernacular that ... only queer people are fully fluent in.” It’s a language Haynes speaks extraordinarily well—his masterpieces, including Safe and Far From Heaven, are steeped in the unspoken codes of repression imposed by a homophobic society.

But accusing Carol of being a distant film still feels unfair. Without giving away the ending, it’s ultimately a story that dares to hope when the formula of a period gay romance might demand tragedy. Though it initially feels dark, its beginning (and, by extension, its ending) is revealed as a quiet triumph—one that’s careful not to overflow with emotions because it knows their power all too well.