Carol: Balancing romance and realism in queer Christmas stories

Ranked by the BFI as the Best LGBT film of all time, Carol is a love story set in mid 20th century America. It is also a Christmas film. What makes this period drama so commendable?

Jasmine Shaw
20th December 2021
Image credit: IMDB and RawPixel
In recent years, we have seen an influx of LGBTQ+ Christmas films, but for me, one in particular always stands out. Set against the backdrop of the Christmas season in early 1950s New York City, Carol follows the forbidden love affair of Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara). With a slow-burning romance, phenomenal wardrobe and just the right amount of mid-century nostalgia, six years after its first release, this film remains as breath-taking as ever.

This sapphic period drama begins with a flashback as Therese begins her shift at Frankenberg’s Department Store, where she staffs a doll counter. Here we meet Carol, a dazzlingly glamourous older woman who, I can’t deny, is a huge factor in my undying love for this film. Therese recommends a train set for Carol’s daughter and the pair’s tentative romance begins, catalysed by a sensual sub-plot involving lost gloves.

In this coming-of-age story, neither authenticity nor glamour is sacrificed in what is a beautiful exploration of the pain and joy of queer love.

From this point on, we follow a series of meetings between the women, who assume a comfortable intimacy with one another almost immediately. Blanchett and Mara’s onscreen chemistry is undeniable as we follow Carol and Therese shopping for a Christmas tree and driving through snow-covered landscapes while listening to the radio.

Tender moments between the pair contrast their wintery surroundings, imbuing Carol and Therese’s romance with a Christmassy feel free of cliché. The pair’s flirtation begins subtly, however, and the women remain relatively emotionally alienated from one another, despite their closeness.

A Christmas love, free of cliche. Image credit: IMDB

In Carol, contemporary social pressures are inextricable from the relationship unfolding onscreen. Under the ever-present watchful eye of 1950s American society, tension builds, giving way to the perfect unexpected crescendo when the protagonists’ feelings for one another are finally revealed.

This is not to say that the social context of the era is idealised; rather, it is Carol’s clever combination of realism and romance that draws me in. Grainy shots reflect this balance of nostalgia and naturalism, while a soundtrack combining a classical score, a sprinkling of Christmas songs and music from the era perfectly matches the emotional highs and lows of the film.

In this coming-of-age story, neither authenticity nor glamour is sacrificed in what is a beautiful exploration of the pain and joy of queer love.

Video credit: Studio Canal UK
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