Director Todd Haynes has acknowledged in interviews that the inspiration for the framing device in Carol came from David Lean’s Brief Encounter. In each case, the in medias res opening leads directly to a film-length flashback, so that the opening scene is ultimately revealed as the emotional climax despite betraying no signs of that at first glance. Such is the buttoned-down sensibility of these two soul-deep melodramas. Even though I’d seen both movies before, I didn’t remember that the moments of parting in their opening scenes were meant to be final farewells. One character presses his or her hand against the other’s shoulder before walking away, a private and restrained message that the audience won’t fully understand until it’s shown again at the very end.
Carol is a deliberate throwback, a lush period piece that pays tribute to the filmmaking styles of the time it portrays. These styles don’t necessarily include that of David Lean, who in Brief Encounter employed a noir-adjacent style, all shadows and steam. But tonally, the two films track very closely with each other. Both films begin with a train (in Carol, a subway, not seen but heard over the opening close-up shot of a sidewalk grate). There’s a unique fury to the way the train knifes into the frame at the beginning of Brief Encounter, a portent of unstoppable forces. The characters’ use of trains is a sign of their orderliness, their regular trips to the same workplaces, stores and movie theaters. This is a recognizably British trait. In America, and in Carol, the emphasis is instead on the freedoms and risks of the open road. Muscular chrome steeds are employed for road trips and Christmas shopping. What these modes of transportation have in common is, of course, windows, through which characters can mentally unfurl the movie of their hopes and dreams.
These are stories of thwarted romance. In one, a man and a woman cross paths on their daily commutes and slowly fall in love, but both are already married and both agree that they mustn’t sacrifice their families to be together. In the other, a young woman falls in love with a soon-to-be-divorced housewife, but their desire to be together becomes a sticking point in the custody dispute concerning the older woman’s daughter. The plots are full of secret rendezvous and hushed emotions. So restrained are they that the brief moments of near-violence come as a genuine shock, punctuated by the filmmakers with unexpected visual grace notes: a camera tilt in Brief Encounter, a quick pan from a gun to its target in Carol. The obstacles for these pairings are external, societal, but conflict also comes from the main characters themselves as they express doubts about what they’re doing.
Brief Encounter strikes me as a great deal more conservative in its attitude toward its subject than Carol is. The latter takes the more romantic, even revolutionary view. Brief Encounter‘s script, by Noël Coward from his own play, admirably avoids painting the neglected spouses as villainous figures and thus stacking the deck. Laura Jesson (played by Celia Johnson) doesn’t have any particular passion for her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond), but he’s a caring man with a good sense of humor. He doesn’t get a chance to stand in the way of her affair with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) because he never finds out at all. I’ve always had the nagging sense that the mousetrap precision of Laura and Alec’s relationship (it all starts with a simple act of assistance, the doctor removing a piece of grit from Laura’s eye) is a kind of statement. Whatever the case, they each voluntarily submit to propriety and to a sense of duty to something bigger than their own desires.
The title character in Carol (played by Cate Blanchett) is not in a position to make the same kind of noble sacrifice. The situations in the two films aren’t entirely analogous. The struggle of Carol and Therese (Rooney Mara) against their antipathetic significant others is much more fundamental. Still, Carol makes her own sacrifice by the end, relenting from a brutal legal battle over her daughter. Societal attitudes about homosexuality are underplayed throughout the film. Phyllis Nagy’s script, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, isn’t primarily a narrative about oppression — comical treatment of workplace conformity aside. But it is about Therese discovering this part of herself, navigating society’s perception of femininity and learning to live as a whole adult person.
In the end, I’m actually skeptical about both of the relationships portrayed in these films. Laura and Alec have just the slightest whiff of a writer’s contrivance about them. Brief Encounter is almost a lunar story — the reflection of a feeling, not the direct experience of that feeling. Two distinct emotions bookend the film, both of them weighty and universal but tangential to the main plot: first, the sensation of having a beautifully sad story to tell and no one with whom you can share it, and last, the sensation of time running out. In a different way, I’m not sure that Carol and Therese are built to last either. The story’s “coming-of-age” dimension leads me to think of their relationship as important but temporary. The ending could be read as ambiguous or symbolic, but I find it just ever so slightly pat. So, considering how crucial these relationships are to each film, my hesitance applies to the whole experience.
Even so, Lean and Haynes do some rapturously beautiful work. The gradations of shadow across Celia Johnson’s face accomplished by cinematographer Robert Krasker are every bit as stunning as the delicate shifts of focus that Edward Lachman creates in Carol. And the return to the opening scene is viscerally effective in each case. Here the storytelling takes on a symphonic quality — the return with redoubled force — to complement the poignant music from Sergei Rachmaninoff and Carter Burwell, respectively. Lean films the shoulder grab roughly the same way each time, while Haynes plays the scene from two different angles. The latter is simply a more overt way to recontextualize the gesture, with its silent ache. To a person sitting at the next table, the gesture could appear almost meaningless, while to the people doing the touching, it signals a pivot point for a lifetime.