Towards the beginning of Todd Hayne’s new film Carol, Therese (played by a sublime Rooney Mara) is watching a movie from a projection booth with her frustrated boyfriend Richard and his friend Dannie. Dannie is furiously scribbling notes. When asked why, he replies, “I’m writing down when a character’s actions are different from what they say.”
That sums up how the film approaches the love affair between Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese. Obviously, given it’s the early 1950s, these women live lives where their words and actions are often diametrically opposed. They are forced to pretend they’re “normal” (i.e. heterosexual). They must hide their passion for one another.
But as they fall in love, Carol and Therese also speak to one another in actions rather than words. They seldom express their feelings directly, instead displaying them through subtle gestures – the way Therese meets Carol’s eyes while standing behind the doll counter at the department store where she works, how Carol brushes her hand across Therese’s back while she’s playing piano, the air of mystery and fragility Therese captures in the photos she takes of Carol.
Carol and Therese’s love affair is so moving because they don’t reduce it to words. They don’t need to. They both know what they feel about one another and we do too. We often see one or both characters obscured by dirty, rain streaked or light reflected windows. They’re hidden, and yet we understand the deep emotions inside them.
Therese rarely speaks her mind. Carol saves her emotional speeches for her battles with her husband, who is trying to take away her daughter because of “morality charges.” In fact, only one of these two passionate women ever says “I love you,” and it’s very late in the movie. Because we haven’t heard such a direct expression of their feelings, it’s a powerful, moving moment. I had tears in my eyes.
I haven’t read The Price of Salt, the Patricia Highsmith novel Carol is based on, but I think there’s a lesson in Carol for romance writers. We can’t be visual in the same way a film can, but we can consider how much more can be expressed with actions rather than words. If our characters love one another, our readers will know it. Our job as writers is to explore the depth of their love and their pain. That’s best done with as little dialogue as possible. “See it rather than say it” should be our mantra.
If you haven’t already, hurry out and see Carol. It’s a beautiful love store, and an important lesson every writer should absorb.