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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

The human will is a remarkable thing. Few of us succeed by accident. Through force of will we study harder, work longer, lift one more time, swim one more lap. When our bodies and minds hit the wall, it's the will that pushes us past the barrier—over, under or through. "Where there's a will, there's a way," we're told, and so often it's true.

But even will has limits.

It's Christmas, 1952, and America has willed itself to be the globe's greatest colossus. Its tireless work ethic helped bring it victory in World War II, and now it's powering the nation's prosperity. Cars fill New York's streets like minnows. Men make grand and daring deals on Wall Street. Women, furs draped over their shoulders and hats perched on their hair, flit in and out of shining department stores, leaving trails of money behind them.

Therese Belivet watches from behind the counter at Frankenberg's department store, selling dolls and trains and other toys. It's not exactly her dream job, to be sure: She'd like to be a photographer if she could. But in the 1950s, few women work once they're married, and wedding bells could be right around the corner for Therese. At least, so her beau, Richard, hopes. He's told Therese he loves her. He's invited her to go to Europe with him on business. He's done everything but physically pull her down the aisle and force the words "I do" out of her mouth.

Therese can't say those words just yet. Richard's a nice guy and all. Therese knows she should like him more. But she just can't seem to make herself be attracted to the guy.

And then, across the cavernous sales floor, Therese sees her: Her blonde hair curving above her coat like a sculpture, her apple-red lips barely feathered in an uncertain smile. She's accidentally knocked the power out on Frankenberg's extravagant train display: The trains coasts and slows, the toy men and women ceasing their blind movements. The tiny, artificial village slips into silence. And Carol returns Therese's fascinated gaze.

Therese is quickly called back to business. The train is flicked back on. The moment is over …

Until the woman is there, in front of Therese. Her gloves rest demurely on the counter as her eyes rest on Therese—questioning, probing. She asks about dolls. They talk about trains. But the real conversation—the crease of the eye, the curl of the mouth, the roll of the breath—is about something else.

The will is a powerful thing, yes. The want is something else again.

[Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]

Positive Elements

Carol—the woman with the apple-red lips—is married but separated, and she dearly loves their daughter, Rindy. Not enough, it turns out. But it's not nothing, either. (More on that a bit later.) "We gave each other Rindy, and that is the most breathtaking, most generous of gifts," she tells her husband, Harge, during a custody proceeding. "Why are we trying to spend so much time keeping her from each other?"

Beyond mere sexual attraction, Carol tries hard to demonstrate that she wants what's best for Therese—even if that means they're no longer together. Abby—a past lover of Carol's—also tries to be a good friend, doing whatever she can to make Carol's crisis a bit easier to bear.

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Carol and Therese share many hotel rooms as they drive across the country. Twice we see them "sleep" together, kissing and clutching passionately. During one of those panting encounters, both women disrobe. Breast nudity is shown. It's implied that oral sex is given.

Leading up to their sexual involvement, the two women spend a great deal of screen time exchanging lingering, longing looks, suggestive touches, etc.

We hear references to Carol's affair with Abby. It's something Harge knows about, and he expresses a great deal of anger and angst over Carol's sexual proclivities. "I put nothing past women like you, Carol," he huffs. "You married a woman like me!" Carol responds.

Before Therese gets involved with Carol, she and Richard spend much time together. He kisses her on her neck during a movie. And we hear that he's slept with two other girls. Therese asks him if he's ever "fallen in love with a boy" (he hasn't) and discusses the "intricacies" of attraction with him. When Therese announces that she's going on a road trip with Carol, Richard says that Therese has a silly "crush" and that in two weeks she'll be crawling back to him, begging him to forget anything ever happened. Another man kisses Therese, making them both feel awkward.

As part of her effort to stay in contact with Rindy, Carol goes to a psychotherapist—with the suggestion being that she's getting help to overcome her same-sex attractions. But she ultimately gives up on her battle for custody, telling her husband and the lawyers that she simply can't conform to their idea of what a wife and mother should be. That she can't go "against the grain" of who she is.

Violent Content

Carol packs a gun in her suitcase. When it's discovered that someone in the next hotel room was taping her sexual tryst with Therese, Carol barges through the door and points the gun at the man. Then she aims at the reel-to-reel recorder and pulls the trigger several times—revealing that the gun wasn't loaded. A very drunk Harge gets pushed to the ground by Carol while they're arguing.

Crude or Profane Language

Two f-words. We also hear close to 10 uses of "d--n," half of them in conjunction with God's name. Jesus' name is abused two or three times. There are one to three each of "h---" and "b--ch."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Carol and Therese both smoke cigarettes. After she and Harge argue and he storms out, Carol is exasperated by her lack of smokes. "Just when you think it can't get any worse, you run out of cigarettes," she says. Elsewhere, Carol gives a cigarette to another female friend. The friend laments that her husband doesn't like her to smoke. "So?" Carol says. "You like it."

There's a great deal of drinking going on, too. Carol and Therese drink champagne and beer on New Year's Eve, and through the rest of the year we see them and others down wine, martinis, whiskey, etc. At a party, we see people imbibing and then, later, passed out around the living room. We see drunks stagger on the sidewalk. Harge, it's suggested, gets drunk frequently. And we see him falling down from the stuff.

Other Negative Elements

Carol lies about making a phone call. Therese throws up on the side of a road.


"You don’t know why you’re attracted to some people and not others," someone tells Therese. "The only thing you know is whether you are attracted or not. Like physics."

That's partly true. As discussed, your will doesn't always tell you what you want—not initially, anyway. Attraction is a mysterious thing. We want what we want … even when we don't want to want it. The Apostle Paul said as much in Romans 7. And in the context of Carol—set in a time when practically every strata of society thought homosexuality was deviant and abhorrent—we can see the angst Carol and Therese feel. You get the sense that Carol—a product of the age—sometimes wants to change. But the movie, unmistakably, tells us that the morality of the day was wrong. And that we shouldn't punish her for being attracted to someone we think she shouldn't be.

It's not like she has a choice, Carol says.

But in pressing this point—one that makes it so resonant for much of today's more permissive culture—the movie makes the same mistake that probably 80% of all those guy-girl romance movies do: It mistakes attraction for love.

When Abby tells Therese about her fling with Carol—and why they're not "together" anymore—she says, simply, "It changed. It changes. Nobody's fault." When the attraction falters the relationship is done, Abby suggests.

We get hints that that's what happened with Carol and Harge, too. "Abby and I were over a long time before you and I were over, Harge," Carol tells him. So it seems the two were a "loving couple," as the movie would define such things—at least for a while.

We are at the mercy of "physics," Carol says, pulled and pushed by our attractions and repulsions like magnets. And when they fade or flux, it's nobody's fault. We simply have to move on to the next magnetic pull.

And that, of course, gets love entirely wrong—and not just because the film's about lesbians. Because love is a matter of will, not want. Yes, attraction is often the catalyst, but marriages do not last 30, 40, 50 years on attraction alone. We choose to love the people in our lives. And some days, that choice is difficult. Feelings change. Love, if a man and woman will it to be, is constant. If we are boats, our feelings can be the ocean wind. But love—love is the anchor. Love is the harbor. And to mistake one for the other—no matter which way those attractions blow—is to resign yourself to a stormy life indeed.

"Tell me you know what you're doing," Abby tells Carol when she hears about Carol's interest in Therese.

"I don't," Carol says. "I never did."

Carol is a compellingly crafted and deeply problematic movie. It features one of the best actresses of our era presiding over a delicately nuanced, deeply probing look at society and relationships in the 1950s. But when we examine its core premise, alas, Carol loses its attraction long before we even need to start discussing its same-sex protagonists or their skin-heavy bed scenes. When a love story doesn't know what real love is, how can we trust it with anything else?

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range



Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird; Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet; Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird; Jake Lacy as Richard Semco; Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard


Todd Haynes ( )


Weinstein Company



Record Label



In Theaters

November 20, 2015

On Video

March 15, 2016

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

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