As anyone who has ever had to conceal their true sexual identity will tell you, the effects of this societal-induced subterfuge can be debilitating.
Forced to play a role for which you are often ill-suited simply by virtue of the way you were born, many LGBTQI people find themselves trapped in personas and circumstances that eat away at their emotional and mental wellbeing until they often become mere shadows of the person they once were.
But as Todd Hayne’s elegantly-crafted masterpiece, Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt makes abundantly clear, there is also a great release, a freedom that comes when, by choice or a confluence of circumstance, the shackles of falsehood are removed and you can finally be yourself.
In today’s world, for most people (but sadly still not for all), the announcement of their innate sexuality or gender identity is met with nothing but welcome and affirmation; in the early 1950s however, nailing your true colours to the mast was an act of inordinate bravery and defiance.
For Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) there is a great deal to lose; while her marriage to husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is on the rocks and close to messy dissolution, a relic of the past in all but legal determination, she faces the prospect of having custody of her beloved daughter Rindy (twins KK & Sadie Heim) taken from her if she is anything but a loving and devoted heterosexual wife and mother.
While she is tempted to continue the charade if this means her access to Rindy continues unimpeded, and at one point does just that through an awkward lunch with her disapproving parents-in-law, her meeting with department saleswoman Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is the catalyst for forgoing the endless duplicity once and for all.
While Carol has had one other same sex affair with childhood friend Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson), her feelings for Therese, played with sweetly-articulated resolve by Mara, are the tipping point for a wholesale reinvention of her life.
Therese, who gives the impression in the early part of the film of a woman accepting of her role as devoted girlfriend to Richard (Jake Lacy) and female centre of attention in their otherwise-male social group.
But almost immediately upon meeting Carol, in a scene that is quietly-realised but sexually-laden and charged with a suddenly-realised world of possibilities, a restless impatience grips her, one no doubt hidden far below the surface for countless years.
As a self-described person who always says yes, and eager to see where this meeting with Carol and their profound mutual attraction can take her, Therese agrees to every request from Carol to meet up, happily travelling to her upstate New York home one Sunday and lunch during work time.
Things move quickly, which may looks rushed and hurried to the casual observer, but which to anyone who has finally found the key to the life they always wanted but seemed hopelessly and tantalisingly out of reach, moves at the expected rhythm.
Here is the person, and by extension, the life each woman has always wanted, and their eagerness to embark on it, obstacles be damned, is completely understandable given how much has been repressed and relinquished up to the point.
Where the screenplay by Phyllis Nagy excels is its ability to keep things moving along at a crisp rate without losing the simultaneous slow and languid nature of two people falling hopelessly and deeply in love.
There is a rich, quiet beauty to the film, which is maintained despite the emotional fever pitch of newly-discovered love, which reflects the fact that for all the excitement and furious beating of hearts, that caution is still needed and recklessness could damn their once chance of happiness.
This tension between what might be and what is continues on throughout Carol, with both women, Therese most particularly, desperate to give their all to the other but constrained through various circumstances, many driven by Harge and Carol’s disintegrating relationship, to maintaining a facade of their former lives, which are now in a state of uncertain flux.
While this approach of weighing the rampant eagerness of new love against the more practical cognisance of societal constraints does give the film an element of emotional detachment – an odd side effect given how furiously the emotions are coursing under the surface – overall you appreciate how conflicted and bound this new love is for both women.
Not conflicted in the sense that neither woman wants it; on the contrary, they want it more than anything they have ever wanted in their lives.
But they are constantly pushing forward before being pulled back by the overwhelming weight of societal expectation and the angst this causes is deeply moving to watch as you watch Carol and Therese try to manifest their love as openly as circumstances will allow and being seemingly foiled at every turn.
As an exercise in the way in which society, by thoughtless, long-held tradition can constrain people to roles they are neither suited for not want, Carol is without peer.
In the case of Carol especially, but also for Therese, you can almost see the chains in physical form binding them to their conventional, expected lives, and you can feel the agony of reaching for something they know is their birthright but which may still be denied through no fault of their own.
Carol brings this agony and ecstasy, this straining for the new while being shackled to the old to life in luminescently gorgeous form, every frame evoking in picture-perfect detail life in the 1950s, not simply physically but emotionally and relationally.
There is never any certainty that Carol and Therese will get their happy-ever-after moment but you are swept along for every tremulous forward step, every achingly sad backward step or 10, in a film that intuitively knows and understands how hard love can be for anyone to bring to fruitition but especially so when an array of almost implacable forces are arrayed resolutely against it.