Novel adaptation brings lesbian romance to screen without tragic tropes or voyeurism
With the backdrop of a snow-dusted 1950s Manhattan and interspersed with Billie Holiday and other era-appropriate jazz hits, Carol is the unorthodox Christmas movie cinema has been waiting for—quite literally, since Phyllis Nagy first adapted the screenplay in 1997. Conceived from what is essentially author Patricia Highsmith’s fan-fiction of her own life, Carol tells the story of a young department-store-clerk-turned-aspiring-photographer Therese Belivet and the romance that follows after she meets the enigmatic and captivating titular woman.
When one of Carol’s standout features is that its script neither kills off its lesbian characters nor ends in tragedy, the bar is pretty damn low for LGBT+ films like this one. Despite this, the film reaches far beyond the disappointing and repetitive tropes often reserved for lesbian romance on screen and delivers a heartfelt and moving story that leaves Netflix’s negligible “Gay & Lesbian” selections in the dust. Beyond raising the bar for women’s romantic relationships in film, Carol doesn’t let any aspect of production slide. From its carefully curated score to its nuanced and emotional cinematography, the film’s seamless aesthetic lets the viewer fully immerse themselves in the story without distractions from potential loose ends.
One notable change from page to screen was the choice to make Therese a photographer rather than a set designer. This seemingly small modification added exceptional depth to the cinematography and stylistically accentuated her character’s growth throughout the film. Beyond serving as a (literal) lens to the way Therese sees Carol in her photographs, Therese’s relationship with photography mirrors her growth and confidence in both herself and her sexuality as the film progresses. While Therese initially has little confidence in her work, her photographs of Carol show her develop as an artist and as an individual.
Because the portrayal of Carol’s character is largely presented through Therese’s eyes, the film is interspersed with dreamy shots through rainy windows, muffled dialogue and a score that mimics Therese’s emotions as she almost unknowingly falls for the older woman. Perhaps the most notable presence of this is the scene where Carol drives Therese out of the city to her home in the country and they pass through Lincoln Tunnel. While Carol is talking to her the dialogue quiets, the score crescendos and the viewer is transported into Therese’s world. While the film does an impeccable job of immersing the viewer, it also shoots some scenes from around corners or through windows, underscoring the intimate and personal nature of Therese and Carol’s relationship.
From Carol’s longing looks to Therese’s nervous disposition, the romance was evident from their first meeting. Converging at a climactic kiss – which was moving enough to compel a grumpy and homophobic cinema-goer behind me to storm out of the theatre in a disapproving huff – the romance between Therese and Carol is equal parts dreamy and emotional. Frankly, it’s a wonder that the aforementioned gentleman didn’t exit the building during the preceding two-thirds of the film, because the tension between the characters can be cut with a knife. Particularly in a world where romance between women is either over-sexualized or dismissed entirely, this film treats its central relationship with respect and delivers the 1950s period piece romance never before awarded to lesbian characters. Their relationship blossoms from nervous interactions to heartwarming laughter and never exists for anyone’s pleasure but their own.