Carol (2015) -- romance in a dark time
Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman in New York city in 1952, has a boyfriend and a sales job in a department store, neither of which much thrill her. One day shortly before Christmas a rich woman customer in her 40s, Carol (Cate Blanchett) forgets her gloves in the store and Therese returns them. Carol invites her for lunch as a thank-you, and they hit it off well. Carol spends more and more time with Therese, gives her gifts, encourages her aspirations as a photographer. Without homosexuality ever being mentioned, the nature of Carol's attraction, and Therese's growing reciprocation of it, gradually become apparent.
Carol is involved in a divorce battle which is turning ugly over the issue of custody of her daughter. Her husband, Harge, knows about her lesbian inclinations (she had had at least one previous affair with a woman). When he finally obtains hard evidence of her relationship with Therese, he has no hesitation about using the bigotry of the time against her in the custody fight. Though the relationship has grown serious, Carol breaks it off, knowing that it could endanger her future access to her daughter.
I can't overstate how well the film tells its story. Romantic feelings must be among the most difficult for actors to express convincingly, yet the slow development of the relationship always feels natural, organic, normal, despite our knowing how unusual and potentially dangerous such a courtship would have been in the 1950s (besides the lesbianism, there is a substantial age difference -- in the novel the film was based on, Therese is 19). The beauty of it contrasts perfectly with the ugly, shabby, sordid traditional morality standing against it.
Another cliché the film avoids is the obligatory tragic ending which plagues so many gay relationship movies. An "ordinary" movie would have ended with the break-up, leaving both women bereft and miserable. Here, after the divorce is settled, Carol gets up the courage to ask Therese to take her back, and in the last moments it's clear that she does.
Realistically, of course, in the 1950s their relationship would have faced continuous threats from the surrounding society, having to be concealed or risk harsh hostility and perhaps even attack by the laws of the time. Some activists even today treat social issues as peripheral, deeming only economic change to be important, but they couldn't be more wrong. When religious taboo "morality" reigned unopposed, it caused immense misery and deprivation. Carol was popular with gay viewers for breaking with cliché and having a happy ending, but it shows how much times have changed that, by 2015, the filmmakers knew the story deserved a happy ending.