During the Christmas season of 1952, aspiring photographer Therese Belivet is working in Frankenberg's department store in Manhattan. She meets a glamorous woman, Carol Aird, who is searching for a doll for her daughter Rindy. At Therese's recommendation, Carol purchases a model train set. When Carol departs she leaves her gloves on the counter. Therese mails them to her using Frankenberg's sales slip with Carol's name and address.
Therese's boyfriend, Richard, wants her to go to France with him, hoping they will marry, but she is ambivalent about their relationship. A mutual friend, Dannie, invites Therese to his workplace, The New York Times, and offers to introduce her to a photo editor friend. Meanwhile, Carol is going through a difficult divorce from her neglectful husband, Harge. Carol calls Frankenberg's to thank the clerk who returned the gloves and invites Therese to lunch. Therese visits Dannie and he kisses her, but she becomes uncomfortable and leaves.
Carol invites Therese to her home in New Jersey. She stops to purchase a Christmas tree and Therese takes candid photographs of her. Harge arrives unexpectedly to take Rindy to Florida for Christmas; he becomes suspicious of Therese as Carol had an affair years before with her friend Abby. Therese witnesses their argument. After Rindy leaves, a distressed Carol takes Therese to the train station so she can return home.
Carol calls to apologize and they meet at Therese's apartment, where Carol surprises her with a suitcase containing a Canon camera and film gifts. Carol has learned that Harge is petitioning the judge to consider a "morality clause" against her, threatening to expose her homosexuality and give him full custody of Rindy. She decides to take a road trip to escape the stress of the divorce proceedings and invites Therese to join her. Richard accuses Therese of being infatuated with Carol and predicts Carol will soon tire of her. The two argue and their relationship comes to an end. On the second night of the trip, Therese meets a traveling salesman, Tommy Tucker.
On New Year's Eve, Carol and Therese kiss for the first time and have sex. The next morning they discover that Tucker is actually a private investigator hired by Harge to obtain evidence against Carol. Carol confronts Tucker, threatening him at gunpoint, but he has already sent secret tape recordings to Harge. Carol and Therese turn back. The following day, in Chicago, Therese learns that Carol has flown home to fight for custody of her daughter, having asked Abby to drive Therese home. Abby gives her a letter from Carol. Back at home, Therese telephones Carol, but knowing that she risks losing custody of Rindy if she continues her relationship with Therese, Carol remains silent and hangs up.
Therese creates a portfolio of her photographs and gets a job at The New York Times. Carol, meantime, has been seeing a psychotherapist as a condition of the divorce settlement. During a meeting in mid-April with divorce lawyers that becomes confrontational, Carol suddenly admits to the truth of what the tapes contained and refuses to deny her nature. She tells Harge he can have custody of Rindy, but demands regular visitation even if supervised.
Carol writes to Therese and they meet in the lounge of the Ritz Tower Hotel. Carol reveals she is going to work for a furniture house and has taken an apartment on Madison Avenue. Therese declines Carol's invitation to live with her. Carol tells Therese that she is meeting associates in the Oak Room and if she changes her mind they can have dinner. Therese remains still and Carol whispers "I love you." They are interrupted by Jack, a colleague who has not seen Therese in months, and Carol departs.
Therese accepts Jack's ride to a party, but finds she cannot connect with anyone. Therese rushes to the Oak Room. She scans the crowd and sees Carol at a table. Their eyes meet. Carol gazes at Therese with a smile that slowly grows as Therese moves towards her.Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird
Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet
Sarah Paulson as Abby Gerhard
Jake Lacy as Richard Semco
Kyle Chandler as Harge Aird
John Magaro as Dannie McElroy
Cory Michael Smith as Tommy Tucker
Carrie Brownstein as Genevieve Cantrell
Kevin Crowley as Fred Haymes
Nik Pajic as Phil McElroy
Carol is based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 semi-autobiographical romance novel The Price of Salt. The book was originally published under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan" by Coward-McCann after Highsmith's publisher Harper & Brothers rejected it. In 1990, Highsmith agreed to republish the novel with Bloomsbury Publishing under her own name and retitled it Carol. The novel was inspired by an encounter Highsmith had with a blonde woman wearing a mink coat, Mrs. E.R. Senn (Kathleen Wiggins Senn), during her employment as a Christmas season salesgirl at the toy department of Bloomingdale's in New York City in 1948. That evening she wrote an eight-page outline for the story, which she developed some weeks later and completed by 1951. The character of Therese Belivet was based on Highsmith herself. Senn inspired the creation of the character of Carol Aird, but the template for the character was inspired by her relationships with two former lovers: Philadelphia socialite Virginia Kent Catherwood and psychoanalyst Kathryn Hamill Cohen. Virginia Catherwood lost custody of her daughter in a high-profile divorce that involved secret tape recordings of her and her female lover.
London-born, New York-based producer Dorothy Berwin was initially attached to the project in 1996, owning the rights to the novel. She enlisted then-playwright Phyllis Nagy to write the screenplay at the recommendation of her London agent. Nagy, who was a friend of Highsmith, wrote the first draft of the script in 1997. Highsmith had suggested to Nagy she adapt one of her novels. According to Nagy, Highsmith was not confident that the novel could be made into a "satisfying" film because of its "intense, subjective point of view". Nagy decided to adapt the script to ensure its fidelity to the source material, remarking, "I felt a strange responsibility to take it, and to make sure that it wasn't screwed up in some fundamental way, because she so disliked many of the screen adaptations of her work."
While searching for investors, Nagy and Berwin learned that the homosexuality of the characters was not as much of an obstacle for securing financing as the fact that they were women. "Having two women leads was the issue," Nagy noted. In 2015, Berwin said that, in those days, it was risky idea to play the role of Carol. "As a project it came together with Cate Blanchett. You needed to always start with her role". Film4 Productions and Tessa Ross financed the development of the film and kept it alive throughout the years, as it "underwent a decade-plus of revision under various directors and investors" − including Hettie MacDonald, Kenneth Branagh, Kimberly Peirce, John Maybury, and Stephen Frears − until the project completely stalled. The long trek was a result of the struggles and roadblocks experienced with funding, rights, and trepidations about a film with a gay theme and two female leads. "During its development, there was a very different kind of lesbian or gay movie that got financed", Nagy said. "They were very agenda or issue driven, and this was not. In fact it insists on not being that in order to make the point. I would talk about that with financiers, and I could see them glaze over."
Nagy said it was important that the screenplay remained authentic to the early 1950s. "There was a different protocol then, a different etiquette, a different way people related to each other physically", she said. "It does you no service to spoon-feed a contemporary audience their own emotional codes and value systems." While various directors and investors had input in the script throughout the long gestation period, Nagy rejected recurrent suggestions that Carol or Therese "should feel guilty about being gay and suffer some kind of breakdown scene about it." "What I knew going in to the adaptation", Nagy said, "was that Pat's lack of psychologizing about Carol and Therese's sexual attraction and ultimately their love, had to be maintained. It could not be corrupted by an impulse to indulge in any number of dramatic narrative cliches about guilt concerning one's sexuality or the like."
Nagy set the adaption several years later than the time in which the novel is set, so "the dawn of the Eisenhower administration and the rise of HUAC could be front and center". One of the challenges of adapting the novel was translating the subjective and limited third-person viewpoint whereby the narrator "sits on the shoulder of Therese and makes regular advances into (and retreats from) her head" and Carol is thus largely seen through Therese's fanatical prism. Nagy was initially apprehensive of the narrative structure, considering "there's no character of Carol. She's a ghost appropriately, as she should be, in the novel", adding that she was "overwhelmed by the task of trying to come up with the visual equivalent for it structurally." Nagy decided to split the point of view and shift perspectives from Therese to Carol, as "the point of view is always with the more vulnerable party". She made Therese a photographer instead of a set designer, allowing her "to be seen moving from objects to people", which Nagy likened to Highsmith as Therese is a "clear stand-in" for the author. Nagy drew from her personal knowledge of Highsmith for Therese, describing one of Therese's lines, "I started taking pictures of people because my friend says I have to be more interested in humans", as the epitome of Highsmith: "that ability to step outside of life and comment on it before participating in it". For the character of Carol, Nagy took inspiration from the silhouette and underpinning of Grace Kelly's character in Rear Window. Nagy had freedom in "inventing a life for [Carol], for whom, basically, we knew the outline of what was going on." Once Nagy was able to dig into and understand the inner life of Carol, her motivations given the circumstances, then the character became easy to write. Nagy aimed to "focus on the nature of what it's like to fall in love from two points of view", and show the characters "just behaving ... not inhabiting positions."
Nagy realized she would "pass time in a different way" to the novel, eliminating elements that were unnecessary and slowed down the story in the screenplay. She had "great freedom" developing the screenplay in England while no studio or director was attached and it was just her and the producer. Over the years, five "proper" drafts of the screenplay materialized. Nagy said that after all the previous collaborations on the script, "working for Todd was easy and quick. We both have an interest in restraint." Haynes and Nagy collaborated on honing the screenplay. When Haynes came on board they had discussions about "what became the framing device"; the story reminded Haynes of Brief Encounter and he proposed a framing device similar to that of the classic film, which Nagy "then ran with in a certain way". "He was interested in the same things, tonally, that the script was interested in – which isn't always the case", she noted. "We were able to keep that restraint going". Working with Haynes, Nagy made the story more enigmatic, pruning some of the backstory in light of a significant line that Carol says to Therese early in the film: "What a strange girl you are, flung out of space." Nagy and Haynes were comparably determined not to make "an agenda film" or a "look how far we've come" film.
At the BFI London Film Festival, Nagy said she titled the film Carol, not The Price of Salt, because Highsmith herself had changed the title to Carol when the novel was republished, and she also "liked the sort of strange, obsessive nature of calling it by someone's name." There were later other discussions with Haynes. Haynes said that the film is called Carol because the novel "is locked into the subjectivity of the younger woman" and Carol is "really the object of desire in the story." "There's an element of, something aloof ... something unsettled about [her], that puts Therese and these new feelings ... on edge throughout much of the film. That relationship of who's the object and who's the subject does shift in the story, but it made sense ultimately that that would be the name for the film." On the universality of the story, Haynes said that the "real determining question is not whether society will accept [Therese's] feelings or not; it's, will this person return her love or not? ... that is what transcends the class of love, or the period in which it's occurring".
British producer Elizabeth Karlsen of Number 9 Films came across Nagy's script circa 2004, during which she co-produced Nagy's film Mrs. Harris with Christine Vachon of New York-based Killer Films. Berwin's rights to The Price of Salt expired in 2010, and Karlsen thereafter acquired the script. Berwin remained an executive producer on the film. Karlsen managed to convince Highsmith's estate to sign over the rights to her, closing down the deal with Tessa Ross in late 2011. She then persuaded a disillusioned and reluctant Nagy to come back on board. The producers hired a U.K. director who then dropped out because of scheduling conflicts. They later recruited Irish director John Crowley, who was announced in May 2012 along with the film's lead cast, Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, and involved producers, Karlsen and Stephen Woolley of Number 9 Films and Tessa Ross of Film4, who received executive producer credit. Carol was scheduled to commence photography in early 2013, until Crowley withdrew due to a scheduling conflict. Karlsen called Christine Vachon to discuss losing another director and Vachon told her that Haynes' new film was not going to happen because its star had backed out of it. They then decided to approach Haynes. Vachon, Haynes' frequent collaborator, asked him if he would be interested and he received a copy of the screenplay. Two days later he committed to direct and Vachon joined the film as a producer. Haynes was announced as the director of the film in May 2013. Two days later, The Weinstein Company acquired U.S. distribution rights at the Cannes Film Festival.
Haynes had first heard about the film in 2012 from costume designer Sandy Powell, who informed him that Blanchett was attached and Karlsen was producing. Blanchett, who served as an executive producer through her production company Dirty Films Ltd., had been involved with the project for "a long time". Haynes learned they were looking for a director when Vachon approached him in 2013. He regarded the story, its historical and social context, and collaborating again with Blanchett as motivating factors for his involvement. "What was so interesting to me when I first read this script", Haynes said, "is how it basically links that hothouse mentality of the desiring subject ... to that of the criminal subject, in that both are these over-productive minds that are conjuring narratives constantly ... this crazy state of this furtive hyperactivity in the mind." Haynes collaborated with Blanchett on a dramaturgical level.
Another complication emerged, when Wasikowska had to drop out of the film because of a scheduling conflict. Haynes then approached Rooney Mara, who had been offered the role of Therese after completing the 2011 film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Mara said that although she loved the script and wanted to work with Blanchett, she turned it down as she felt exhausted and unconfident. By the time Haynes came on board she was "in a much different head space" and signing on to the project was "a no brainer at that point." In August 2013, it was reported that Mara had replaced Wasikowska.
In January 2014, Carter Burwell was hired to compose the music for the film. Edward Lachman, who had previously collaborated with Haynes, served as the director of photography.
Sarah Paulson was cast as Abby, a close friend of Carol, and Kyle Chandler was cast as Harge, Carol's husband. The following month, Cory Michael Smith was cast as Tommy, a traveling salesman, and Jake Lacy joined the cast as Richard, Therese's boyfriend. In April 2014, John Magaro was cast as Dannie, a writer at The New York Times. Carrie Brownstein then joined the cast in the role of Genevieve Cantrell, a woman Therese meets.
In rehearsal, Haynes, Blanchett and Mara realized certain lines that either character did not need to say should be cut, which Haynes deemed the "stylistic practice that we all took throughout the creative departments. I feel there was an understanding with them that words and dialogue were never carrying the weight of the story." Costume Designer Sandy Powell said of working with Haynes, "Todd is super visual, super prepared and he provides his own visuals at the beginning of the film. He starts with a look book of images that he's compiled over the months and months. He's almost OCD about it. In a good way." The look of the film was influenced by the post-war color photography of Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, and Vivian Maier, as well as the abstract photography of Saul Leiter. Haynes used their works as a visual reference for depicting a "dirty and sagging" New York.
In making preparations for filming, the producers found that the cost of production in the New York City area would be prohibitive and it was also going to be difficult to find locations that resembled early 1950s New York. Part of the financing plan was hinging on a co-production deal with Canada, with filming taking place in Montreal, but Haynes joining the production led to a complete re-think. Karlsen recalled making a film 27 years earlier in Cincinnati, Ohio, that was set in 1950s New York. After researching the city, she found that it had not changed much in decades and the state of Ohio also had one of the best film tax incentives in the United States. The city of Cincinnati was very accommodating to the production, which employed many local citizens as crew.
In December 2013, it was announced that Carol would be filmed in Cincinnati, Ohio, and production offices would open in early January 2014, with filming expected from mid-March through May. In February 2014, the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky Film Commission released the solicitation from producers for extras and vintage vehicles. Principal photography began on March 12, 2014, at Eden Park in Cincinnati. Various locations around Cincinnati, Ohio were used during production, including Downtown Cincinnati, Hyde Park, Over-the-Rhine, Wyoming, Cheviot, and Hamilton, as well as Alexandria, Kentucky. Except for the Waterloo, Iowa, motel room, which was a set built for privacy during filming of the love scene, actual locations were used for interior and exterior settings. The second floor of a now-defunct department store served as the location for the toy department of the fictional Frankenberg's. Filming was completed on May 2, 2014. The film was shot in 34 days. Edward Lachman shot Carol on Super 16 mm film using 35 mm format lenses.
Post-production on the film took seven months to complete in New York. Haynes was involved in the editing process alongside editor Affonso Gonçalves. Visual effects (VFX) were used to remove modern components from backgrounds, with six "key shots" needing extensive VFX. Moving shots were particularly complicated when they were filtered through windows, rain, dust, and other elements, said Haynes, and the CGI details "had to fit exactly into the vernacular itself, with the grain element and level of distress." The digital intermediate process was used to achieve a "very specific, slightly spoiled palette". Haynes spent five and a half weeks making detailed notes on Gonçalves's assembly edit, and produced his director's cut within four weeks. The producers gave notes on the director's cut, and held some test screenings with friends and acquaintances. They decided to show the cut to Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein was impressed and endorsed it.
Haynes confirmed deliverables were completed on December 15, 2014. Carrie Brownstein stated that the first cut was extensive and most of her scenes were left out. In November 2015, Sarah Paulson said that a key scene between Abby and Therese as well as some of the conversation in a scene with Carol was cut from the film. In January 2016, Rooney Mara revealed that an intimate scene between Therese and Richard was also deleted. Editor Affonso Gonçalves stated that the initial cut was two and a half hours and the final cut ended at 118 minutes. Todd Haynes explained in an October 2015 interview: "We cut a lot of scenes; it was too long, and they were all well-performed and nicely shot—we never, in my opinion, cut things because they were poorly executed. It was just a paring-down process, which all movies do."
The soundtrack for the film was released in both digital download and CD album format by Varèse Sarabande on November 20, 2015, followed by a double album vinyl release on June 24, 2016.
The soundtrack includes the original score by Carter Burwell and additional music performed by The Clovers, Billie Holiday, Georgia Gibbs, Les Paul and Mary Ford, and Jo Stafford. Songs not featured on the soundtrack CD include "Willow Weep for Me" performed by Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks Orchestra, "Perdido" performed by Woody Herman, and "That's the Chance You Take" by Eddie Fisher. "A Garden in the Rain" performed by The Four Aces, "Slow Poke" by Pee Wee King, and "Why Don't You Believe Me" performed by Patti Page are also not included in the CD, but appear in the vinyl version.
The first official image from Carol, released by Film4, appeared in the London Evening Standard in May 2014. Despite being completed in late 2014, producers withheld the film until 2015 to benefit from a film festival launch. In October 2014, Haynes and producer Christine Vachon announced that the film would premiere in the spring of 2015 and would be released in the fall.
Carol had its world premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. It made its North American debut at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4, and screened at the New York Film Festival on October 9, 2015.
The film premiered in the United Kingdom as the BFI London Film Festival's Gala event on October 14, 2015. Originally scheduled for a December 18 release in the United States, Carol opened in limited release in the U.S. on November 20, 2015. It received a platform release in the country, expanding from four to 16 locations on December 11, from 16 to 180 theaters on December 25, and reaching over 520 theatre locations by the weekend of January 8, 2016. The film went into wide release on January 15, 2016. Carol was released nationwide in the U.K. on November 27, 2015.
In December 2015, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Russian distribution company Arthouse had acquired distribution rights to release the film in Russia in March 2016. The CEO of Arthouse said that it was "a huge challenge because of the federal 'gay propaganda' law that victimizes the Russian LGBT community", and "will prevent Carol to be sold to major TV channels or even being advertised on federal networks". He noted that "some cinemas will refuse to book the film", but "the controversy around the LGBT issues will help us market Carol to the right audience", adding that it is a film about "a relationship, it's a story of forbidden love" and he believed it would "appeal to the public way beyond the LGBT community." The film was released in Russia on March 10, 2016.
In March 2016, a 35 mm film screening of Carol was held at the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival. The Metrograph independent cinema in New York City hosted a special 35 mm screening event for the film, followed by a Q&A with Todd Haynes, cinematographer Ed Lachman, and producer Christine Vachon. The event was sold out, and a second and third screening were added due to popular demand.
Carol was made available for digital download on March 4, 2016. The film was released on DVD, Blu-ray and video on demand on March 15, 2016 in the United States by Anchor Bay Entertainment, and on March 21, 2016 in the United Kingdom by StudioCanal. Disc format bonus features include behind the scenes gallery, Q&A interview with cast and filmmakers, and limited edition art cards. As of March 10, 2016, both the DVD and Blu-ray were Number 7 on the list of top pre-order sales in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the DVD debut charted at Number 7 and the Blu-ray at Number 12 of "Top 100" sales for both formats. As of March 20, 2016, sales of the DVD and Blu-ray in the United States totaled $356,971 and $246,161 respectively, for a combined total of $603,132.
In the United States, Carol premiered on premium cable channel Showtime on October 8, 2016, and on Showtime on Demand service and Showtime Anytime streaming app on October 9, 2016.
Carol received a ten-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival international press screening and premiere. Critics particularly lauded Haynes' direction, Blanchett and Mara's performances, the cinematography, costumes and score, and deemed it a strong contender for a Cannes award. On film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 94% approval rating based on reviews from 258 critics, with an average rating of 8.6 out of 10. The site's critical consensus states: "Shaped by Todd Haynes' deft direction and powered by a strong cast led by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Carol lives up to its groundbreaking source material." Carol was named the best-reviewed romance film of 2015 in Rotten Tomatoes' annual Golden Tomato Awards. On Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 95 (out of 100) based on 44 reviews from mainstream critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Carol is Metacritic's best reviewed film of 2015.
The film received widespread acclaim. Kate Stables wrote in Sight & Sound: "Elegant restraint is the film’s watchword ... In this enjoyably deliberate film, each shot and scene is carefully composed to pay homage to 50s cinema, yet infused with an emotional ambiguity which feels decidedly contemporary." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said: "[Haynes] has made a serious melodrama about the geometry of desire, a dreamy example of heightened reality that fully engages emotions despite the exact calculations with which it's been made... 'Carol's' lush but controlled visual look is completely intoxicating. This is filmmaking done by masters, an experience to savor." A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times: "At once ardent and analytical, cerebral and swooning, 'Carol' is a study in human magnetism, in the physics and optics of eros. With sparse dialogue and restrained drama, the film is a symphony of angles and glances, of colors and shadows." Amy Taubin from Film Comment said: "The narrative, precisely chiseled by Phyllis Nagy from the ungainly novel, is deceptively simple ... What's remarkable about Carol is that it seems to exist entirely in the present moment—to be precise, in that electric, elastic, heart-stopping/heart-racing present of romantic desire. It is a film composed of gestures and glances, its delicacy a veiled promise of abandon. And it could not exist without the extraordinary performances of Blanchett and Mara." David Stratton of The Australian wrote: "The meeting of these two women is an electrifying scene; their eyes make contact, and nothing of significance is said, apart from the usual interaction between shopper and shop assistant, but Haynes and his wonderful actors make it very clear that something momentous has occurred — love at first sight."
Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent said: "Todd Haynes's latest feature is a subtle, moving and deceptive story of two women (brilliantly played in very contrasting styles by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) who refuse to live against 'their own grain' ... Phyllis Nagy's screenplay emphasises their steeliness and self-reliance. In sly and subversive fashion, Haynes is laying bare the tensions in a society that refuses to acknowledge 'difference' of any sort." Andrew O'Hehir of Salon wrote: "From its opening shots of the autumnal, rain-swept streets of New York sometime in the middle of the last century, director Todd Haynes’ magnificent new film "Carol" establishes a mood of mournful romance, half nostalgic and half ominous, that never lets go." Peter Howell of the Toronto Star said: "Everything clicks into place for this gorgeous achievement. Cinematographer Ed Lachman shot on Super 16 mm film to achieve era-specific muted colours and softer textures. Precise production design and a palette steeped in shades of green and red (appropriate to the Yuletide setting) make watching it seem like stepping inside an Edward Hopper painting." Mark Kermode wrote in The Guardian: "This superb adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt doesn't put a foot wrong. From Phyllis Nagy's alluringly uncluttered script to Cate Blanchett's sturdily tremulous performance as a society woman with everything to lose, this brilliantly captures the thrills, tears and fears of forbidden love."
Writing for Variety, Justin Chang said: "One of the film's more remarkable achievements is that, despite their obvious differences in class and background, Therese and Carol seem to ease themselves (and the audience) so quickly and naturally into a bond that they have no interest in defining, or even really discussing — a choice that works not only for an era when their love dared not speak its name, but also for Haynes’ faith in the power of the medium to achieve an eloquence beyond words." Francine Prose wrote in The New York Review of Books: "Among the virtues of Todd Haynes's new film, Carol, is the delicacy, the patience, and the sheer amount of screen time that it lavishes on the experience of falling in love: the hesitations and doubts, the seemingly casual exchanges freighted with meaning and suppressed emotion, the simple happiness of being together." Anita Katz from The San Francisco Examiner said: "Haynes triumphs in his quest to make a sweeping romantic melodrama with social substance at the core. As a period piece, the movie immerses us in 1950s styles and attitudes. As a sensory experience, it dazzles with everything from rain-streaked windows to Therese’s plaid tam-o-shanter ... Haynes powerfully addresses the consequences of ignorance and intolerance. Impressively textured, the drama is filled with secret glances and other subtle aspects of forbidden love." Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post wrote: "Carol" is a performance of a performance, whereby codes and signals convey the most essential stuff of life, while the kabuki of being "normal" plays out with the carefully cultivated — and patently false — perfection of the toy train village Carol buys from Therese at their first meeting. Working from a carefully crafted script by Phyllis Nagy, Haynes portrays two people thirstily drinking each other in, while on the outside, they sip tea and cocktails with prim decorum." Naming it "one of the year's very best films", Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said: "Camera virtuoso Edward Lachman finds visual poetry in the hothouse eroticism that envelops Carol and Therese, an amateur photographer who keeps framing Carol in her lens. Blanchett, a dream walking in Sandy Powell's frocks, delivers a master class in acting. And Mara is flawless ... Haynes' commitment to outcasts, then and now, makes Carol a romantic spellbinder that cuts deep."
As of March 31, 2016, Carol had grossed $12.7 million in the U.S. and Canada, and $27.6 million in other countries as of May 1, 2016, for a worldwide total of $40.3 million against a budget of $11.8 million. In the United Kingdom, the film earned £540,632 ($812,000) in its opening weekend from 206 screens; ranking Number 7 of the top 10 films for the weekend. Carol had grossed $4.0 million in the U.K. as of April 3, 2016.
In the United States, the film began its limited run on November 20 at four theaters − The Paris Theater and Angelika Theater in New York City and the ArcLight Hollywood and Landmark Theater in Los Angeles − and was projected to earn around $50,000 per theater. The film grossed $253,510 in its opening weekend at the four locations, the best opening of Haynes' films. Its per-theater average of $63,378 was the third largest of 2015. In its second weekend, the film grossed $203,076, with a "robust" per location average of $50,769, the best of the week, bringing its nine-day cumulative from the four theaters to $588,355. In its third weekend at the four locations, Carol earned $147,241, averaging $36,810, the highest for the third week in a row.
The film expanded from four to 16 theaters in its fourth week, and it was projected to average an estimated $10,000 over the weekend. In its fourth weekend, it grossed $338,000, averaging $21,105 per screen, and bringing its United States cumulative total to $1.2 million. The film was projected to earn an estimated $218,000 from 16 theaters in its fifth weekend. It grossed $231,137, averaging $14,446 per theater. Carol then expanded from 16 to 180 theaters. In it sixth weekend, the film made $1.1 million, with a $6,075 average across 180 locations; its United States total gross was $2.9 million, with a worldwide gross of $7.8 million from seven other territories. Carol crossed $5 million in the United States in its seventh weekend. Expanding to 189 theaters, the film grossed $1.2 million, with a $6,429 average.
Carol has received over 270 industry and critics nominations and over 85 awards and honours. The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Queer Palm and Mara tied for the Best Actress award. The film won the Audience Award at the Whistler Film Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival's Gold Q Hugo Award for exhibiting "new artistic perspectives on sexuality and identity". Carol was the "overall favorite" on IndieWire's critics' poll on the best films and performances from the New York Film Festival, topping the Best Narrative Feature, Best Director, Best Lead Performance (Blanchett and Mara), Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography categories. Lachman was awarded the grand prize for Best Cinematography by the Camerimage International Film Festival. The jury stated:
[Carol] seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time. It also creates its own unique cinematic language and pulls the viewer deeper and deeper into a world where something as simple as love comes at a staggering cost. Its delicate and precise exploration of emotion through color and light led us to discuss what it meant to achieve mastery of our craft. [Lachman] is, for us, a master and [Carol] is a masterpiece.
The Weinstein Company confirmed in September 2015 that it would campaign for Cate Blanchett as Lead Actress and Rooney Mara as Supporting Actress for the 88th Academy Awards. The film received six Oscar nominations, including Best Actress. It garnered five Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama. It received nine BAFTA Award nominations, including Best Film. The film was nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards and won for Best Cinematography. It also received nine Critics' Choice Movie Award nominations, including Best Film. Blanchett and Mara received Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role and Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively.
The New York Film Critics Circle awarded Carol Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Screenplay. The film won Best Music from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and was runner-up for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. The National Society of Film Critics awarded Haynes Best Director and Lachman Best Cinematography. Haynes and Lachman also received the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Director and Best Cinematography. Lachman won the London Film Critics' Circle Technical Achievement Award. Carol won five Dorian Awards, including Film of the Year, Director of the Year, Performance of the Year – Actress (Blanchett), LGBTQ Film of the Year and Screenplay of the Year. It was awarded the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film – Wide Release. The Frankfurt Book Fair named Carol the Best International Literary Adaptation. The American Film Institute selected Carol as one of its ten Movies of the Year. The AFI Awards jury rationale stated:
CAROL sets the screen aglow with the light of longing as Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara transform a period piece into a timeless cry from defiant hearts. Todd Haynes serves their romance as a restorative cocktail, adding splashes of color to a repressive Eisenhower-era, when love was often seen in black-and-white. From luminous performances to sumptuous production, this is cinema's promise fulfilled—a haunting portrait in moving images, painted in the universal hues of heartache and passion.
In March 2016, the British Film Institute named Carol the best LGBT film of all time, as voted by over 100 film experts, including critics, filmmakers, curators, academics, and programmers, in a poll encompassing over 80 years of cinema. In August 2016, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) named Carol a new 21st century film classic, ranking it Number 69 of the best 100 films since the year 2000, as voted by 177 film critics from 36 countries.
The admiration of Carol resulted in a fandom community that has been referred to as the "Cult of Carol". In June 2017, the comedy short film, Carol Support Group, premiered at the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. Directed by Allison Tate, the film (a tribute to Carol) tells the story of mayhem in "a support group for people addicted to the movie Carol." The tagline of the film's poster, "Some people are addicts forever", is a parody of the original "Some people change your life forever" tagline of the Carol film poster.
While the lack of racial diversity provoked criticism of the Oscar nominations, the omission of Carol from the Best Picture and Best Director categories prompted considerable discussion from journalists on the perceived indifference by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences toward female-centric and LGBT-centric films.
Nate Scott of USA Today called its absence "the standout snub" of the ceremony, "one made all the more ridiculous because of the bloated Best Picture field". Nico Lang of The A.V. Club said that despite the film having been considered a "lock" for a Best Picture nomination, the omission "shouldn't have been a major shock" given the controversy over Brokeback Mountain's loss a decade earlier. Jason Bailey of Flavorwire remarked that most Best Picture nominees that include gay themes "put them firmly in the realm of subplots", and most often the actors are nominated, not the film. "Carol's most transgressive quality", Bailey declared, "is its refusal to engage in such shenanigans; this is a film about full-blooded gay lives, not tragic gay deaths."
At HitFix.com, Louis Virtel suggested that Academy members' reception of the film was hurt by its focus on independent women. Matthew Jacobs of The Huffington Post expressed similar sentiments and felt that the Academy's artistic tastes were "too conventional to recognize its brilliance".
Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair proposed that although its "themes of passion and heartache may be universal" the film may be "too gay", speaking "in a vernacular that, I'd guess, only queer people are fully fluent in." Lawson stated that the film's lack of "gushing melodrama" put it at a disadvantage. Dorothy Snarker of Indiewire attributed the omissions to the Academy's demographics. Snarker agreed with Lawson that Carol may be too gay and too female "for the largely old white male voting base" to connect with. Snarker also considered that the successes of the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. may have been partly responsible for the lack of "political urgency" around the film.
At The Advocate, Rebekah Allen maintained that "there are those who simply do not want to see a lesbian love story on screen." Trish Bendix of AfterEllen said the Best Picture snub was a "reminder of the patriarchal society we continue to live in, where films that create a space for women to live happily without men and without punishment will not be rewarded."
Marcie Bianco of Quartz described the film as "centered around women's desire" and Haynes structured it in a way that "elevates the power of women's gaze". The omission of Carol from Best Picture, Bianco concluded, illustrates "yet again how sexism operates in the world, and in the Academy specifically, as the refusal to see women as protagonists and agents of desire." Writing for Paper magazine, Carey O'Donnell observed that gay romances are only "Oscar surefires" when they use the tragedy and desolation equation, and "a depiction of two strong women in love with each other ... who end up being [quite well]" with their lesbian relationship "seems to still be troubling to many." David Ehrlich of Rolling Stone commented that the film's "patience and precision" did not conform to Academy tastes, but its legacy "will doubtlessly survive this year's most egregious snub".
Todd Haynes said he thought the film having two female leads was "a factor" in the omission.
In January 2016, ABC rejected a prime time commercial for the film featuring a snippet of the love scene between Carol and Therese, causing The Weinstein Company to re-edit the television trailer. In August 2016, Delta Air Lines came under fire on social media for airing an in-flight entertainment version of Carol in which all the same-sex kissing scenes had been deleted. Phyllis Nagy replied on Twitter that, contrary to Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines had provided the full theatrical release.