If you look up "independent film director" in the dictionary, you might see Todd Haynes's face. He's the man who brought us six different actors playing Bob Dylan, an examination of the glam rock era, and interracial housewife-gardener romances; a seasoned veteran at tackling repression and disarming the social morays of the past. Which makes Carol right up his alley.
Set in 1952, it stars Cate Blanchett as the titular character and Rooney Mara as Therese, a young shopgirl who falls for the older woman almost immediately. Fortunately, that feeling is reciprocated; unfortunately, Carol is about to get divorced from an uptight businessman (Kyle Chandler) who is using custody of their daughter as glue to hold the marriage together and drive off other potential suitors.
Much remains unsaid throughout; we only hear snippets of what Carol and Therese have gone through previously, fleeting details of upbringings and past relationships. It's mostly through interactions with their male love interests (Jake Lacy of Obvious Child fame plays Therese's pursuer) that we see just how pent-up their lives are. The men mean well (in a pushy, dictatorial sort of way) and think they love the two women, but their brains can't fathom how they ended up pursuing the unattainable.
Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy tell their story of love without ponderously reiterating the sexual orientations of its protagonists. Instead, it's there in the hoops they must jump through to be together, in the anger Carol's husband feels at being tossed away for a woman, in the utter desperation Carol's and Therese's eyes share from a life deprived. And their eyes speak volumes; Blanchett and Mara, brilliant actresses the both of them, communicate more through gazes and facial expressions than they do with words.
This, as much as anything, marks Carol as a period piece: the forced subtlety and their need for chaste comments or furtive touches goes so much further than someone exclaiming, "This is wrong." We see in their postures, so tense and taut, that they're just like us in 2015, screaming to be free and be heard and be themselves. That's just not an option, at least from what they've been taught and what's happening all around them. The world was progressing in 1952, but not enough to allow a perfectly proper man-woman marriage to be sullied by a lesbian love affair.
One particular shot, with only one of Chandler's eyes visible as he stands flummoxed at a slammed door, invokes new sympathy for a character who until then had been nothing but aggressive and boorish. In that way, Haynes allows that society is the silent antagonist; there's no absolution for getting caught up in its hateful tendencies but there is acceptance of a situation that can't be understood. Judgment is not cast upon anyone; as one character, a private eye who monitors Carol and Therese, notes later in the film, he's just a professional doing his job. They're all trying so damn hard to keep doing their jobs.
Carol is packed with shots through windows; dirty, distorted, reflective images that share the uncertainty of the people they're capturing. Everyone is grasping at straws; even Sarah Paulson's Abby—Carol's best friend and the most confident of the leading foursome—has no answers. But she seems to embrace that fact, that love is a curious thing and to stifle it with socially acceptable regulations is a worthless endeavor. In kind, she does the best she can to ferry messages and cart the smitten from one place to another until they come to terms with themselves.
In the end, Carol smartly and thoughtfully subverts expectations of how a torrid May-December romance will conclude. Neither Carol's egocentrism nor Therese's naivete drive them apart; it's up to life, and the complications of relationships, to potentially do that. But Haynes and Nagy leave us with an optimistic moment that's rare in these sorts of stories; perhaps love will indeed conquer all. It deserves the opportunity.