The other half is the story, of course. That's pure eyes-meet-across-a-crowded-shop-floor romance, the eyes belong to posh shopper Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and doll-department clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), the latter sporting a Santa hat and helpfully suggesting, against the grain of the time, that Carol buy her daughter a train set instead of a doll. Nowadays Scott Lang's daughter in Ant-Man has a train set in her room, but Thomas the Tank Engine is something different from the deluxe affair Therese recommends, and I suppose the choice is a sort of signal beyond what these women's eyes told each other. Carol is married but estranged; she's already had an affair with a childhood BFF (Sarah Paulson) but her hubby Harge (Kyle Chandler) is desperate to reconcile, or simply to possess Carol. At stake is custody of the Aird's daughter, but despite the risk Carol is drawn inexorably to Therese, choosing a road-trip with her over spending the holidays in Florida with Harge and their little girl. Therese has a boyfriend she has no real feelings for and a BMF who encourages her to pursue her photographic vocation. Carol's Christmas gift of a pricey professional Nikon kit helps clinch Therese's identification of her with a better future for herself on every level, but her connection with her new friend transcends such calculations.
Things can't go easy in those days, but Carol is smart (presumably following the novel) in not having its heroines persecuted for their sexuality as such, but having their consummation exploited (by a private eye played by Cory Michael [Eddie Nygma] Smith) to give Harge leverage in the Airds' custody fight. On another level Carol herself is persecuted for her choices, but her subjection to inquisitorial psychoanalysis -- the story rejects the crude notion, articulated by Therese's boyfriend, that there's some psychological problem "in the background" of homosexuals -- is kept behind the curtain and is only referred to in the film. From here the film heads for a sort of Capracorn climax as Carol gives a big speech during the pre-hearing custody negotiations in which, after having ditched Therese in a panicked effort to keep her daughter, she effectively sacrifices her claim to the child, or most of it, rather than give up either Therese or her own nature. It gets positively Chaplinesque at the end, which is a wordless exchange of glances that confirm, despite all, the original exchange at the start of the film.
Like many films these days, Carol is just a little non-linear, opening with a scene that actually comes, when we return to it, very late in the story. But Todd Haynes is enough of an artist to eschew the "x months earlier" blurb that many filmmakers rely on rather than make the point cinematically without spelling things out. I still haven't seen Haynes's best known-film, Far From Heaven, for which Carol is already seen as a companion piece, but a knack for critical period recreation shown there and reconfirmed in his Mildred Pierce miniseries allows us to take Carol and Therese as authentic creatures of their time. Cate Blanchett can take care of the rest easily enough but Rooney Mara holds her own with the master thespian and takes a big step toward fulfilling the promise shown in The Social Network. There's been some controversy with the coming of awards season over critics and Academy members being steered toward considering Mara as a supporting actress rather than an equal to Blanchett. I can understand the complaint given how much screen time Mara has and Therese's nearly co-equal status with Carol in the story. It's really only the custody scene that seems to put Blanchett ahead, but I don't really have a problem (unless Mara does) with putting the two stars in separate categories. Shouldn't people who really like this film want both of them to win something? I have to admit that I haven't seen much this year to compare them with, but right now Blanchett and Mara are my favorites for distaff acting honors this year, and Carol is one of the best films I've seen in 2015.