With few exceptions, fictional narratives about the lives of LGBT Americans in the pre-Stonewall era were largely stories of self-hatred, punishment, pathology — and even death. They were also often enshrouded in subtext in order to obscure their queerness under layers of plausible deniability. The novelist Patricia Highsmith certainly — and artfully — engaged in those tropes, most famously in her homoerotic thrillers Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. But in her 1952 novel The Price of Salt — which has been adapted by director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy into the movie Carol, currently in theaters — the book's central love story between two women has a surprisingly hopeful ending.
"It's very T.S. Eliot — in my end is my beginning," said Cate Blanchett, the eponymous star of Carol, in a phone interview, referencing Eliot's 1940 poem "East Coker." "It ends with possibility, which is all any love affair can begin with: possibility."
Carol tells the story of Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a slightly lost, but also very young, aspiring photographer in New York City, who takes a job at a department store for the Christmas holiday. There, she meets Carol Aird (Blanchett), a customer who appears to be an upper-class wife and mother from New Jersey. Therese, smitten immediately, grasps onto their almost imperceptible flirtation in order to get to see Carol again — and it works. After an intense, largely unspoken — and certainly brief — courtship, the two women embark on an unlikely Christmas road trip. Therese will do anything Carol asks. And Carol, embroiled in an ugly divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), yearns to be anywhere but her empty house.
As they travel, Carol sometimes succeeds in distracting herself into a low-boil of happiness, and Therese manages to get closer to Carol. But any incipient romance between them is thwarted after the first time they have sex: Harge has hired a private investigator to follow them, and by spying on them in bed, he now has the damning evidence to invoke a morality clause in their divorce to take custody of their daughter, Rindy (Sadie and KK Heim). Panicked and angered, Carol rushes home, leaving Therese in the care of Carol's best friend and former girlfriend, Abby (Sarah Paulson). In a goodbye letter to Therese, Carol writes beautifully about a seemingly impossible future between them: "lives stretched out ahead of us — a perpetual sunrise," but "until then, there must be no contact between us." She tells Therese, "I release you." Therese is so devastated that she vomits on the side of the road.
It seems, in other words, as if Carol is heading straight into tragedy — the familiar territory of impossible love between two people of the same sex. But Highsmith's novel upended that expectation, and Haynes' movie — thrillingly — follows suit.
The screenplay does diverge from the book in its framing: Carol's first scene follows a young man into the bar at the Ritz Hotel, and as he settles in, he recognizes Therese from a distance and goes to say hello. It's then that we first see Therese and Carol together — and they seem to be having a fraught, sad, and then interrupted exchange. When Therese leaves to accompany the man to a party they're both attending, she stares out the window of a cab and remembers how her relationship with Carol began. The story of their relationship unfolds, eventually circling back so the audience can finally hear their conversation at the Ritz.
In a recent interview with BuzzFeed News, Haynes said that when he first read Nagy's screenplay, he thought of David Lean's classic 1945 film Brief Encounter, and he worked with Nagy to emulate its structure. Brief Encounter begins with peripheral characters introducing you to its setting, with its main characters in the background — the story is then told in flashback. "It's not a whodunnit, but a who owns it kind of question," Haynes said. "And I thought that's what makes love stories really resonant." Blanchett, who had been attached to Carol before Haynes signed on to direct it, said that the screenplay's new configuration "excited" her, since Brief Encounter is one of her favorite films. Blanchett said, "I felt like it released the screenplay into a completely different place."
Therese's point of view takes the reader through The Price of Salt. But Carol's gaze shifts throughout the movie, from being first Therese's version of events to later including Carol's narrative. When Carol returns home knowing she could now lose Rindy, she is almost willing to sacrifice herself in order to prevent that. During a painful dinner with Harge's family, they ask her about the psychotherapy she is undergoing, and she says it's helping, even as she can barely contain her fury. Later, she talks to Abby about her misery — especially since she’s still without Rindy. When Abby brings up Therese, telling Carol that she has started a job in the photo department at the New York Times, Carol says, "I should have said, 'Therese — wait.'"
Haynes said that by that time in the story, Carol is about to realize that it will be impossible for her to be both a full-time mother and someone who is happy. "She's trying really hard to keep her relationship with her daughter as the primary definer of who she is and what she wants," he said. "And I think she's learning that she may need more than that. She can't cut off whole limbs to protect other people who are ultimately separate people from herself."
As Carol heads in a taxicab to her lawyer's office for what will surely be a brutal, humiliating showdown with Harge — and one in which she might well capitulate — she sees Therese walking down the street, looking purposeful and matured. Just the sight of Therese galvanizes Carol. "She goes into emotional free-fall because she's trying to salvage her connection with her daughter," Blanchett said. "But at such a cost that I think if she hadn't returned to Therese, she may well have killed herself."
In the next scene, Carol interrupts the ugly fighting between her lawyer and Harge. Speaking directly to Harge, she says, "I won't deny the truth,” adding, "Now what happened with Therese — I wanted. And I will not deny it, or say that I do."
She then shocks him by saying that she is willing to give him custody of Rindy as long as she can have regular visits with her. "Now there was a time when I would have done almost anything — I would have locked myself away to keep Rindy with me," Carol says. "What use am I to her, to us, if I'm living against my own grain? So that's the deal. I won't — I cannot — negotiate anymore. You take it or leave it. But if you leave it, we go to court. And if we go to court, it will get ugly. And we're not ugly people, Harge!" And with that, Carol walks out of the office.
"By that point, she does know who she loves, and that's what helps her to make that speech," Haynes said. "There's a strength of clarity that comes in that final scene." He added: "Carol realizes she's sacrificing everything, and she needs to think about her needs as well. Therese was much more fundamental to what she wants than she maybe ever knew.
Blanchett said, "I think that in order to deeply love someone, you have to be free."
And so Carol returns to the bar at the Ritz — a meeting initiated by Carol — to Carol and Therese's conversation. Therese, guarded to the point of nearly being entombed, listens to Carol, but will not be vulnerable again. Carol, with a light tone, reports that she and Harge are selling their house, and that she has gotten an apartment and a job. When Therese asks about Rindy, Carol says that she has not seen her much — her entreaty to Harge did not work (or has not yet worked, perhaps).
"The apartment's a nice big one — big enough for two," Carol tells Therese. "I was hoping you might want to come live with me — but I guess you won't." There is a long, loaded pause. Then: "Would you?" Carol asks, near desperation. Therese's response is careful: "Oh, I don't think so."
Carol is not entirely thwarted — she knows she has hurt Therese deeply — and she invites Therese to meet her at dinner with friends later at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. Then she throws her Hail Mary, punctuating a stilted conversation filled with more silence and stares and exhalations than dialogue: "I love you." It's then that Therese's acquaintance comes up to the table, not noticing Therese has been emotionally floored by Carol's declaration. Carol is sure she has been rejected. But she has been performing a role her whole life and is able to put on a friendly face and leave the table.
"It's now Carol who is the one with her heart on her sleeve, who is sort of stripped naked and asking something of Therese," Haynes said of the scene. And Blanchett made note of Mara's path for Therese: "It's so beautiful the way Rooney has charted Therese's journey from innocence to maturity — to heartbreak. I think it's exquisite."
If it seems like Carol will end there, having completed a sad circle, the film has another twist. Therese goes to her party — filled with lively peers who call her by her last name, and to whom she can joke, "There'd better be beer up there" — but she is distracted. And not even another woman who seems interested in her, played by Carrie Brownstein, can draw her attention. She leaves.
In Carol's final scene, Therese determinedly enters the Oak Room, searching for Carol. But when she sees her, Haynes said, "there's a moment before she starts to move that I think is really important." He talked to Mara about the end of The Graduate after Benjamin rescues Elaine when they both wonder what will come next. "They're in the bus," Haynes said. "And then they're just sitting in the bus. Like, Now what? I just wanted that little moment of Now what? What's going to happen next? The walk across the room isn't the end of the story."
With Therese contemplating her choice, the din of conversation in the crowded restaurant fades, and Carter Burwell's score begins to play. Therese, now resolved again, starts her approach to Carol's table, where Carol and her three friends appear to be having a lovely time. In a shot that Blanchett said tested her "sense of peripheral vision to work out where the camera was," Carol finally notices Therese.
The two women look at each other. Therese begins to smile; Carol, staring straight into the camera (we are Therese at that moment), looks exuberant. The music cuts off, the screen goes black, and the movie ends. (From the time Therese enters the restaurant until the final shot is a full two minutes.)
Carol and Therese's affair in its first stage was an escape for Carol, and a learning experience for Therese. It also was conducted in secret, with the shame that accompanies that state. "It's not really until they come together at the very end of the movie that you feel that they're kind of on solid ground," Haynes said. "They're stepping out of that isolation, and maybe taking the first steps toward something real." As for what will happen next, Haynes said, "I like that you don't really know."
"Your job is just to imagine that moment," Blanchett said. "And that conversation is for the audience."