Based on an ahead-of-its time lesbian novel by Patricia Highsmith, and directed by Todd Haynes, who specializes in period dramas about LGBT struggles and repressive social rules, “Carol” beautifully meets high expectations. It’s a flawlessly crafted, stirringly intelligent, resonantly emotional story about two women daring to follow their hearts.
The dramatically contained adaptation of a Highsmith book, with noir tinges, represents new terrain for the director. At the same time, with its Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama and themes involving postwar attitudes toward sex and love, it resembles Haynes’ previous work, especially the superb “Far From Heaven.”
Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Highsmith’s written-under-a-pseudonym “The Price of Salt,” the drama transpires in the early 1950s — days of Eisenhower, fur coats, fedoras and adjectives like “swell.”
Therese (Rooney Mara) is a 20-something Manhattan department-store salesclerk with Audrey Hepburn bangs, photography-career aspirations and a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) she clearly isn’t into.
She is transfixed, however, by Carol (Cate Blanchett), an older, upscale customer from New Jersey who is shopping for a Christmas gift for her young daughter.
Perhaps not quite accidentally, Carol leaves her gloves on the counter, and this leads to a lunch date, during which the self-possessed Carol and the still-forming Therese bond. The two go on a road trip and experience bliss and then heartbreak in an Iowa motel.
Their romance cannot survive the attitudes of the times, represented by the vindictive actions of Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler).
Those hoping that “Carol” will be as eerie or edgy as Haynes’ past films (including the New Queer Cinema gem “Poison” and the AIDS-era illness tale “Safe”) won’t find such qualities in this conventionally formatted work.
But 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.
Without preachiness. 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.
Both lead performances are terrific. In the Carol role, which Nagy enhanced in her adaptation, Blanchett combines elegance and submerged passion. A scene in which Carol pleads for the right to be with her daughter is a stunner.
Mara, whose Therese not only sells toys but initially looks like a doll, is riveting as her character’s sense of self solidifies. An excellent Sarah Paulson, portraying Carol’s best friend and former lover, Abby, rounds out the primary supporting cast
Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Written by Phyllis Nagy
Directed by Todd Haynes
Running time 1 hour, 58 minutes