There have been a handful of films that have tackled the theme of LGBT issues effectively and much of that achievement can be accredited to maintaining contemporary relevance while also evoking a form of awareness to audiences who are not personally associated with the LGBT community in any way. Such films are representative of a community and their plights and it is integral that such films are made. Yet what are the most impactful of these films? It is the ones that exhibit a visual, a representation of an era, and most importantly, the human aspect to such environments.
The human aspect of any such film comes in the form of how the characters react to the era in which they are a part of. The 1950s saw the rise of families purchasing televisions and having direct access to the world, therefore television perpetuated a concept of “the normal” to those watching it. The McCarthy Un-American Committee was in full swing, accusing many of being Communist spies, many of those accused not being so. The Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, furthering Southern state tensions between State and citizens. Yet another aspect of the 1950s was the discreet discrimination of homosexual individuals, such as legislation Executive Order 10450 which decreed that “sexual perversion” was grounds for employment termination. As a result, many homosexual individuals were discreet or lived lives of extreme unhappiness by denying even to themselves who they were. This is where the plot of Carol centers itself around.
The premise of Carol is simple yet utterly profound: Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a store clerk who meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) entirely by chance. Almost immediately Carol takes a liking to Therese, finding her fascinating, to which Therese finds herself becoming increasingly attracted to Carol. As their relationship deepens, the complexity of life overtakes both of them, challenging their ability to be who they truly want to be.
Profound sadness. The one attribute that is most glaring in this film is the subtlety of loneliness and sadness, primarily shown through Cate Blanchett’s acting. The tragic irony of the film is that she is financially stable and essentially has anything she could ever want on a material level. Outwardly, she presents herself as happy, but internally she is emotionally lost. She wants and desires more and feels herself trapped in a societal role that expects her to be a certain way. To dare to step outside of that normative convention means her undoing. Therefore, she flees from society, hoping to escape. She drives, hoping to find salvation somewhere, only to realize the cruel reality that she cannot ever escape.
Mental illness. Up until 1974 the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder. One of the primary heartbreaks of the film is Carol, who is in the midst of a divorce with her husband (Kyle Chandler), has her competence as a parent challenged by claiming she has broken a morality clause. This directly refers to the concept during this era that placed an association with homosexuality with immorality and mental illness, an absurd claim from this era. What makes this aspect of the film particularly profound is the film’s representation of Carol being an extraordinary mother to her child, loving her unconditionally, and being potentially torn from her child merely due to who she loves.
Heartbreak. Often films convey scenes of heartbreak but none have ever been so effective as Carol, whose sequences of heartbreak are almost devastating to watch. Heartbreak is a typical human aspect within relationships, where ultimately someone is hurt, even when the breakup has the best of intentions. Therese endures the torment of heartbreak throughout the film by being continually hurt by Carol, who is in an impossible situation within her life. Carol wants Therese, but pushes her away repeatedly out of fear, fear of being found out and labeled as a deviant. Even with Therese understanding such complexities, it still destroys her and she still misses Carol. This is something anyone who has been in love can resonate with: There is always a longing that continually devastates one and Rooney Mara expertly conveys this through Therese.
Placement in Society. Another theme that is prevalent within this film was the expectation of women within a “normative” society. Within their own circles, both Carol and Therese are expected to be obedient and fit within the role of what it is to be a woman. Instead, both women have freed themselves from these expectations. Carol is divorcing her husband and Therese is independent; both of them exhibiting qualities that make them outliers. As a result, they stand idle in a complacent society when they are anything but that. Yet still, they both find themselves with the obstacles of combating an expectation of them. Carol is forced to stand up to her soon-to-be ex husband who demands she occupy the role of being his wife. Therese is surrounded by males who presume she will comply to her femininity and display their disappointment when she acts otherwise. In both their regards, Carol and Therese are independent but isolated from the rest of the surrounding society.
Love. This is what Carol is about: Love. Despite the conventions of society, the repressive aspects of their lives, even the ramifications of their actions, Carol and Therese love each other. This isn’t love out of societal defiance. This isn’t love in a form of rejecting men. Their love isn’t even opportunistic. Their love is pure. Their love is unconditional. Their love has understanding. That is what makes Carol such a beautiful film. It is a film about how a chance encounter found two lonely people and they fell in love. What is especially noteworthy about Carol is the reminder that love just is. It doesn’t matter whether it is gay, lesbian, or straight; Love just is.
Bravery. Carol and Therese embark on a relationship despite the restraint of the society around them. It can be argued that such love is defiant, but Carol never represents their relationship in such a manner. Instead, their love is a reminder that there were individuals during this era that strived to have such happiness, even if it meant being an outcast.
The impact of Carol is its humanity. The film beautifully conveys the complex and heartbreaking realities of relationships. The 1950s were a decade of repression for many and Carol provides a below-the-radar story of two normal individuals who sought love despite everything in their respective societies telling them to do otherwise. Carol is not only about love, but about the bravery that comes with love. That is where the impact of Carol lies.