A film that unfolds in a haze of romantic and sexual tension, "Carol" is about loving someone you're not supposed to in a society so repressed it can't even tell you why. It's about passion under heavy manners, about the swooning first love a young woman might feel for an older woman, and while the attraction is physical, that's hardly all it is.
When mousy, serious Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) first sees Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) across the countertops of Frankenberg's toy department at Christmastime, her world and the movie come equally to a halt. It's the early 1950s, and Carol is dressed in red under glamorous fur, her hair immaculately coiffed, wiser, experienced, owning every room into which she steps. Therese stands behind the doll counter in a ridiculous Santa hat; she looks like a failed elf. They chat about a toy for Carol's young daughter, and Therese talks the older woman into a train set. "Well. That's that," Carol says, and then she's off, leaving a pair of lambskin gloves on the counter. Before she disappears into the crowd, she turns and mouths the words, "I like the hat." For Therese, that's that.
Blanchett and Mara give two of the year's subtlest performances, the former as a glamorous statue turned human from lust and loss, the latter as an empty canvas slowly filling herself in. "Carol" is based on "The Price of Salt," a 1952 novel, originally published pseudonymously, by Patricia Highsmith, whose many suspense novels include "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Strangers on a Train," both memorably adapted to film.
For all that, the movie's star is its director, Todd Haynes. A hushed, confidant companion piece to Haynes's "Far From Heaven" (2002) — another story of forbidden '50s love with roots in the style and storytelling of that era — "Carol" is a tragedy set in a society of beautiful surfaces. It re-creates postwar Manhattan with a fidelity that can take your breath away, from the greenish glow of public lighting to the gash of a woman's scarlet lipstick to the precise café au lait tones of Carol's Packard coupe.
"Carol" captures the era just before "Mad Men," when the doubts hadn't started fully gnawing, and it has a visual understanding of loneliness that owes quite a bit to Edward Hopper. (The cinematographer is the invaluable Ed Lachman, who also shot "Far From Heaven.") As with the current "Brooklyn," a (slightly) more conventional story of a shop girl during the same time period and a borough away, "Carol" is a movie to drink in with eyes, ears, and sensibilities. Of course the story feels undernourished at times — Haynes wants to immerse us in an era when everything true about a person was precisely what couldn't be said.
Carol is married but separated, with a castle in the suburbs and a husband, Harge, whose love for her is as fierce as his need for control. Kyle Chandler plays Harge — rhymes with "barge" — as a man lacking all the graces of his wife but holding all the cards, especially those involving custody battles and societal opinions of certain "perversions." It's a smart, sympathetic portrayal of a man we find increasingly hard to sympathize with. After a lunch date, Carol invites Therese out to the castle for dinner, which goes badly when the husband crashes the party; ultimately the two women head into the heartland on a road trip to nowhere, exiles at Yuletide.
The movie risks playing it too cool, too contained — too much a "Brief Encounter" for the Tri-State area — and if you can't surrender to its languor, you may get antsy. Haynes maintains the film's temperature at a low simmer and expertly brings it to the boil, but while "Carol" builds to a scene of intense eroticism, it's mostly about all the things you can't reach out and touch. To do that, you'd have to name them — or her — and no one here dares speak the words, not even Carol's oldest friend and first love, Abby, played with an air of defeated wisdom by Sarah Paulson.
By contrast, scenes of Therese among her sort-of-bohemian Manhattan pals are charming and tentative, with a confused boyfriend (Jake Lacy of "Obvious Child") and an edgy young New York Times writer (John Magaro) who encourages the heroine's photography career and is drawn to her dour shyness — he figures she's an intellectual who just needs heating up. Late in the film, and all too briefly, we get a glimpse of Carrie Brownstein ("Portlandia") as a blithe possible match for Therese, the kind of woman who might not be afraid to call herself a lesbian, even in 1952. Among other things, "Carol" is a snapshot of an America gathering itself to leap into the unknown.
Which is why Carol herself haunts Therese and the audience alike, why Carter Burwell's ethereal score remains in the minor key of an elegy. She's of the generation that can't be saved, even if the ending of both Highsmith's novel and Haynes's movie is perfectly ambiguous as to whether Therese does in fact save her. (What's the meaning of the film's very last shot? That depends on whether you think Carol's looking at Therese or past her.) The true heartache of "Carol" comes a scene or two earlier, when the title character realizes her shop girl is all grown up. Well. That's that. And, like that, Carol disappears into the past.
★ ★ ★ ★
Directed by Todd Haynes. Written by Phyllis Nagy, based on "The Price of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith. Starring Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 118 minutes.
R (a scene of sexuality/nudity, brief language).