Written by: Phyllis Nagy, Directed by: Todd Haynes
Carol, one of the most praised films of 2015, tells the story of a romance between two women (one upper class, one class-ambiguous) in 1950s New York. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the film’s selling point is no doubt that it’s an LGBT story set “back in the day” (“There were…like…lesbians back then….woahhhh dude!!!”). While it can certainly be argued that simply making a film like Carol is important, given Hollywood’s under-recognition of LGBT-centric cinema, the film’s greatness stems from its execution, not its premise.
Carol shows homophobia in a light many viewers may not anticipate. Had Hannah Arendt not already coined the term to refer a situation far more sinister than what is depicted in Carol, I would describe Carol (Cate Blanchett)’s struggle as being against a banal evil.
Carol does not live (what by modern standards would be considered) an openly gay lifestyle. She speaks with refined posh-ness, and her public dates with Therese (Rooney Mara) are not outwardly romantic. On the other hand, Carol’s “closeted” mannerisms, can also be understood as the refined affect of a high society, 1950s New York woman. To put it simply, it is hard to tell when Carol is mundanely living a suppressed existence, and when she is mundanely living a lavish one.
Furthermore, by the standard of her era, Carol is not all-that-closeted either. Amongst those who know her, her sexual orientation is an open secret. Viewers might expect Carol to be chastised by Jerry Falwell-type preachers or to be regularly subject to slurs and revolted stares. Carol, however, is victim to no such behaviour. Instead, homophobia only rears its ugly head when the legal system is brought into play. Carol’s orientation comes under scrutiny because it allows her legal opponent (whose identity I will not reveal) to invoke a “morality clause” against her. Even then, the clause is introduced and discussed calmly. Rather than being an expression of true “moral” revulsion, it is used as a tool for the assertion of misogynistic (more than homophobic) domination.
Carol’s sexual orientation causes her hardship, but it is not the kind of hardship viewers will anticipate. Carol does not suffer as a result of having a sexual orientation that society refuses to accept. Rather, she suffers because her sexual orientation is something that society seems nearly ready to accept: but nearly is far from good enough. Her opponents may not denounce her, but still nonchalantly marginalize her as “immoral” when it is convenient to do so. For instance, when Carol and Therese (Rooney Mara) discover that of one of the film’s secondary antagonists has been spying on them to expose their relationship, he makes no righteous tirade about how they are living in sin, but instead makes an empty apology, explaining that he is doing his job and he wishes them no ill will.
Hate speech and violence are nasty parts of history that have defined many bigotries including homophobia. Carol, however, challenges viewers to look at another element of systemic bigotry: the dispassionate, banal evils of people using the law and “doing their jobs.” This “toned down” analysis of marginalization allows Carol to engage in deep social criticism, while still telling a strong narrative that’s not overwhelmed by its ideological ambitions.