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Mixed Media: Films

Carol film still

Carol – a groundbreaking story of lesbian love in McCarthy-era US.


directed by Todd Haynes (118 minutes)

Nearly 30 films have been based on Patricia Highsmith’s novels and short stories. Carol, the latest, stands apart. It originally appeared (pseudonymously as The Price of Salt) in a gaudy cover as lesbian porn for male readers. When, 30 years later, Highsmith had come out as its author, it sold over a million copies. Though it has a private investigator, and a scene with a handgun, it’s not a tightly plotted crime thriller. Nor is it about a sociopath. Neither is it porn, though it does glancingly feature sex.

The 35-cent paperback carried the strapline ‘The Novel of a Love Society Forbids’ – which was especially so in the 1950s as Senator McCarthy campaigned against homosexual influence in the arts and politics. Maybe the strapline helped it find the audience it merited, who warmed to it and hailed it as a serious study of the prospects, for a lesbian couple, of a happy and fulfilling relationship.

Director Haynes, as in his Far From Heaven, sumptuously recreates the 1950s – its big bulbous cars, hairdos and fashions, and unreconstructed gender roles. Cate Blanchett as the socialite Carol is all fur, poise and appearance. She doesn’t, though, sport a perm. Neither does Therese, the shop assistant Carol meets when she buys a Christmas present for her young daughter. And when Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese gets in touch.

Their relationship in some ways follows a classic filmic pattern – Carol is experienced and predatory, but softens and, as they get to know each other, falls in love. Therese is sweet, innocent, inexperienced. She’s wowed that Carol knows her way around. And not least by Carol’s courage in standing up to her husband, and for herself as a lesbian – at the risk of losing all contact with her daughter.

Carol is far from the familiar Highsmith territory of plot, calculation and murder. It’s a simple but ground-breaking story of being true to oneself, and of finding oneself in commitment to – and trust in – others. Its ending is very simple too, extraordinary and very powerful.

Rating: ★★★★

New Internationalist issue 488 magazine cover This article is from the December 2015 issue of New Internationalist.
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