"Carol" is an overwhelmingly beautiful film. It looks like a dream, it sounds like whispered want, and it feels like falling in love in all its stomach turning terror and ecstasy. Even its title rolls elegantly off the tongue.
In "Carol," director Todd Haynes, his filmmaking team and his formidable leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have birthed that rare, precious creation where the substance, the story and the emotions all stand on equal footing to the film's loveliness — easily making it one of the year's best.
The story, adapted from Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel "The Price of Salt," is both straightforward and deeply complex. It's about two lost souls at very different ages and stations finding each other by chance and altering the course of the other's life.
It's just a glance — longing at first sight — across a crowded Christmastime department store when Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a gawky shop girl in a tattered Santa hat spots Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), dripping in tasteful furs and corals and regal confidence. Carol sees Therese too, and they hold each other's gaze for a wistful moment.
But their mutual, immediate attraction isn't that simple. It's New York City in the early 1950s and same sex relationships are, at the very least, not a widely accepted public affair. There's more at stake than just the possible heartbreak of any passionate relationship in this setting.
To complicate matters further, Therese doesn't yet know herself that well, and Carol is navigating a divorce from her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), with whom she shares a child. Carol's desires are known even to her husband but largely unspoken. Therese is just discovering hers.
It makes the courtship more subtle than most, but this isn't a film about flouting societal norms on some mass scale. It's about these two people and the profound heartbreak of not fitting in the time period that their lives unwittingly occupy.
There is a fascinating contrast in these two women, separated by 16 years in real life. Mara's Therese is a girl-woman, styled, in some cases exceedingly overtly, to look like Audrey Hepburn in the '50s. This character doesn't have Hepburn's innate elegance and effervescence, though — she is beautiful, but awkward. When she speaks, she doesn't project so much as swallow her clipped words. She is intelligent, but uncomfortable in and alienated from this world. That otherness is even more evident when she's with her sweet and conventional boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy).
In striking contrast to Therese, Carol is the epitome of feminine, well-heeled refinement. Her magnetism and grace inspires obsessions and devotion from those around her — her husband, her devoted more-than-a-friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) — even as she redirects her focus to others.
But it's the love story that's at the center. Carol remarks that it's as though Therese has been "flung out of space." It could apply to both. Alone, they are lost. Together, they're ablaze.
Few working directors today are able to inventively meld high style and high art in the way that Haynes does, even as he returns to a familiar period ("Far From Heaven") and actress in Blanchett ("I'm Not There").
There are some distracting oddities, including Carrie Brownstein in a very minor role, despite prominent screen credit and Carter Burwell's score, which sounds distinctly like a Philip Glass composed-original, but those are minor quibbles in an otherwise splendidly realized film.
Period movies often can't escape the era in which they're made. The eyebrows, the makeup, and even the faces all seem to point to another time. "Carol" looks like it was actually made in its day — a story that has been buried from sight until now to transfix, enchant and remind us of art's transformative capacity, and we're all the luckier for it.
"Carol," a Weinstein Company release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language." Running time: 118 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr