Acclaimed American novelist Patricia Highsmith published the pulp fiction novel The Price of Salt in 1952, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. This high-tension romantic drama is a semi-autobiographical tale which unfolds the complicated love story between two women loving women. This masterpiece of lesbian literature was adapted into the film Carol in 2015—which went on to pull five Golden Globe nominations, six Oscar nominations, and nine BAFTA nominations.
The film follows the building romantic tension between two women at Christmas time. Therese Belivet (portrayed by Rooney Mara) is an aspiring photographer keeping herself afloat by working the counter at Frankenberg's department store. Carol Aird (portrayed by Cate Blanchett) is a glamorous and affluent older woman in the midst of a difficult divorce. The pair meet at Frankenberg's as Carol searches for a gift for her daughter, Rindy. The first careful gesture of intent is made when, after Carol leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her house.
Both of these women are weighed down by the burdens of compulsory heterosexuality. Carol's marriage to Harge (portrayed by Kyle Chandler) fell apart after she had an affair with her best friend, Abby (portrayed by queer icon Sarah Paulson), leaving the custody of her daughter hanging precariously in the balance. Therese is in a slogging relationship with Richard Semco (portrayed by Jake Lacy), who's pushing for an engagement—though Therese engages in a small and unsatisfying tryst with another man in the film.
To thank Therese for her efforts in returning her gloves, Carol invites the younger woman to lunch. A mutual obsession develops from the start, propelled by a slow simmering attraction that is exhibited by no other pairing in this film. But their agonizing will they/won't they affair means danger for Carol's personal life, as Harge is threatening to petition for custody of their daughter via a "morality clause," which would expose Carol's homosexuality to the court and community.
Carol longs to get away from it all, and takes Therese with her on a cross-country road trip. The women grow closer, even as an air of danger begins to hang over Carol. After consummating their long-burning feelings, Carol is distraught to learn that they've been tailed by a private investigator, Tommy Tucker (portrayed by Cory Michael Smith), sent by Harge to gather evidence of her lesbian affairs. Carol holds Tucker at gunpoint, but it's too late—the evidence has already been delivered.
The women have no choice but to return home. As Carol goes one way to fight for custody of her daughter, Therese is left behind in the wake of the family drama. However, this film subverts the tendency to bog queer cinema down with tragic endings, as Carol eventually embraces the truth of her sexuality, refusing to abide by the rules of both Harge and society. Carol invites Therese back into her life, and after finding that she connects with no one else the way she connected with Carol, she seizes her chance at love.
This is a film grounded in reality in way that both Christmas films and romances rarely allow. Rather than an immediate whirlwind relationship, Therese and Carol navigate their attraction slowly, building trust by confiding in one another and learning their comfort in one another's bodies. Through their earned affection, they face the very real realities of homosexuality in the 1950s. While no one utters phrases such as "gay" or "lesbian," their love and sexuality is still very tangible—and still has devastating and scandalous consequences. Though while refusing to deny the hardships the queer community has faced throughout history, Carol also never attempts to deny them their happiness.
Throughout the drama, machinations, and soaring trials of love, the magnificent backdrop of Manhattan in 1952 lends to the dreamy Christmas landscape of the film. Amidst the tumultuous post-war framework, holiday subtleties were woven in around the action: a timeless toy store, Christmas cookies, fuzzy Santa hats, and the crooning of Silver Bells over snow-swept scenes. The film embraces the beauties of the holiday without repeatedly shoving ho-ho-hokey gimmicks down viewers' throats.
Carol is unconventional in terms of a romantic holiday movie, certainly. But while some members of the queer community were off put by the manufactured drama and too-easily resolved conflicts in the recent Happiest Season movie on Hulu, Carol has transcended both stereotypes and tropes of LGBTQ and holiday films. For a low key holiday watch full of ever-present drama, genuine romance, and realistic stakes, Carol is the perfect movie to watch this Christmas.
Featured still of "Carol" via The Weinstein Company