“Carol,” an adaptation of a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith directed by Todd Haynes, sweeps the viewer up into a heady, exquisitely choreographed dream.
Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is a stylish New Jersey homemaker doing some last-minute Christmas shopping in Manhattan when she spies a watchful shop girl named Therese. The two have a perfectly unimportant interaction about dolls and toy trains, ending in a sale, when something cataclysmic happens: Carol turns on her way out, smiles slyly and, pointing to the Santa cap Therese wears with obvious discomfort, says, “I like the hat.”
It’s an electrifying moment, and for Therese, who’s portrayed by Rooney Mara in an Audrey Hepburn-esque performance, a defining one. Finally, the audience senses, she’s been seen by someone, in a deeper, more knowing way than ever before.
“Carol” traces the two women’s friendship that gradually, inescapably, develops into a passionate romance, bringing the audience along on a love affair born of instinct, affinity and the instantaneous connection that poet Rainer Maria Rilke compared to “two solitudes,” touching and greeting each other.
But “Carol” takes place in the early 1950s, when love between two women still dared not speak its name. Haynes allows the gleaming surfaces, meaningful looks and subliminal cigarette smoking do the talking in a film that harks back to the work of his hero, Douglas Sirk, both in look and deceptively subversive tone.
“Carol” is an almost perverse exercise in exquisite taste and masklike performance. But rather than evoke surfaces for their own sake, its lacquered 1950s perfection and Hopper-esque nightscapes underscore the protagonists’ struggle. While Carol battles her soon-to-be ex-husband Harge (perfectly played by Kyle Chandler) and Therese swims into consciousness against the tide of an eager boyfriend (Jake Lacy), their outer selves express all that goes unspoken, silenced by the conformist culture that engulfs them.
“Carol” is a performance of a performance, whereby codes and signals convey the most essential stuff of life, while the kabuki of being “normal” plays out with the carefully cultivated - and patently false - perfection of the toy train village Carol buys from Therese at their first meeting. Working from a carefully crafted script by Phyllis Nagy, Haynes portrays two people thirstily drinking each other in, while on the outside, they sip tea and cocktails with prim decorum. (There’s a telling flaw on the fake-ermine brim of Therese’s cap, a scarlet smear that isn’t the letter A, exactly, but signifies nonetheless.)
Teasing out the provocative, even subversive subtexts of “Carol” turns out to be an enormously pleasurable experience, thanks to Haynes’s unapologetic if slightly mischievous love for manicured melodrama, Blanchett and Mara’s finely tuned performances, and Carter Burwell’s delicate, gently propulsive score, which carries the viewer alongside the younger woman as she’s swept into the gravitational pull of someone far more assured and experienced than she (at least at first).
In one of the film’s most effective sequences, the two take a car ride from Manhattan to New Jersey, and it unfolds with almost dreamlike abstraction. This is what it’s like to fall in love, the movie seems to say, before you realize you’ve even tripped.
A longer journey ensues in “Carol,” one that involves the inevitable obstacles and pain. Playing out with episodic inevitability, the plot feels schematic and obvious until the viewer realizes how expertly Haynes has drawn the viewer into Therese and Carol’s feelings and desires. The film ends with a sequence that is simultaneously devastating and soaringly triumphant.
It’s possible to watch “Carol” simply for its velvety beauty, but chances are that, by that stunning final moment, filmgoers will realize with a start that they care far more about the problems of these two people than they might have realized. “Carol” possesses the same quiet, catlike powers of its magnetic title character: It swirls around to ambush you — “I like the hat” — and make you swoon.
Rated: R for a scene of nudity and sexuality, and brief profanity. Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson. Director: Todd Haynes. Running time: 118 minutes. Theater: Flicks.