Carol: Circular Narrative and Mirrored Characters

2015 has been a big year for the LGBT movement – not least of all in Ireland, with the world’s first passing of a bill legalising same-sex marriage by popular vote. In Hollywood, perhaps entirely by accident, we’ve been hit with two films that address homosexuality and transgenderism in a world not yet ready for such phenomena of social acceptance: Carol, and The Danish Girl.

carol poster

Since 2007, I’ve made it a habit of going to the cinema at least once per week; most recently, I sat down to watch Carol, not sure what to expect before heading in. I don’t read reviews before I watch a movie – my cinema has a membership card that allows me to see as many movies as I want for a monthly cost, so I don’t need to be overly picky – so I missed all the positivity that Carol had already generated, and instead went in with the mind-set that, given it’s December, we were looking at Oscar-bait. I’m of the opinion, now, that it deserves any and all nominations it receives. Be warned, while I’ve attempted to avoid specific details of the plot, there will be general spoilers in this article.

As the trailer suggests, Carol is a circular narrative. This is a fact clearly stated and barely understood until it has been seen; the film does not seek to explain itself, much in the same way that Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird denies any explanation about herself to the people she meets throughout the events of the film. Set in the 1950s, she’s a closeted lesbian in a failed marriage, spending more time with her female friends than her husband. She’s figure of mystery and adversity, seemingly unconcerned with the consequences of her actions.

Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is her opposite. Unassuming, petite, and plainly dressed, she is everything Carol is not. Where Carol is presented as a wealthy socialite, Therese is a working girl living the daylight of New York, an aspiring photographer unwilling to accept the bonds of social pressure in the same way Carol did in her youth.

Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird

Their lives are mirrored throughout the movie, from their simple beginnings and through their transformations. For Therese, her appearances in the park echo the changes in her life; her working life and the photographs on the way in her kitchen tell different types of stories, challenging her dreams and managing her expectations. Carol’s transformation is reflected in her lawyer’s office, in her restaurants, and in the appearances of her best friend, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). There is a role reversal in the relationship between these women from opposing worlds.

In a pair of scenes, the women look for the other in their worlds – Therese looks for Carol in the night, and Carol for Therese in the day – from the point of view of a cab, bookending the ways in which the women and their relationship changed them as people. In the beginning, they fulfil a need in the other. Therese needed direction in life, Carol needed love. As they drive through New York looking for one another at different points in the movie, we’re given the impression that what they need in someone else has changed – and neither woman feels fitting for the role, anymore.

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet

Alongside an incredibly powerful narrative, we’re given lingering shots of the women throughout their relationship. When they talk, when they drive, when they kiss, we are given an insight into the lives and their emotions, looking long enough at them as they listen to the other to more fully understand the weight of the words as they are spoken. The camera directs us to what is most important: how Carol and Therese make each other feel. It does not matter how one or the other looks as they speak. As their relationship is less conventional than we as an audience as used to, so too is the cinematography.

Powerful performances from Blanchett and Mara, with support from Paulson, Kyle Chandler and a host of others from Therese’s life guide us through a story that cinema needed, the normalisation of same-sex relationships on the big screen. This is a tale of love and transformation, and the effects of other people on our lives; while it seeks to challenge the romantic and sexual expectations of the women involved, such relationships are not uncommon in heterosexual circles. As Therese asks of her courter, Richard, “How many times have you been in love?”, we can be expected not to view Carol as a story of forbidden sexuality, but on the demands of love and romance on a life, and how it can bring out the best and worst in someone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Carol has been nominated for several Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion-Picture – Drama (both Blanchett and Mara). Have any thoughts on the film, or anything to contribute – comment away!

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