Director Todd Haynes knows his way around a melodrama, having worked within the confines of the genre in HBO's "Mildred Pierce" miniseries as well as his exquisite Douglas Sirk pastiche, "Far From Heaven." Haynes has a knack for recreating period dramas in a way that feels at once thoroughly modern and also like they might have been dug up out of a time capsule. In the elegant romance "Carol," about the secretive love affair between a young department store clerk and a middle-aged housewife in early-1950's New York City, Haynes delivers a romance that would have been taboo in its own era and injects it with a frankness and honesty that's very much of our time.
The young woman is aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) when the impossibly glamorous woman comes into the store looking for a Christmas present for her children. When Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese has them delivered to her house in New Jersey, and as a thank you, Carol offers to take the younger woman to lunch. The women's relationship starts off as friendship, though in the conservative Eisenhower-era the love that dare not speak its name often remained hidden away under the guise of a close friendship. In Phyllis Nagy's unadorned screenplay (adapted from the novel "The Price of Salt" by Patricia Highsmith), every conversation has layers of underlying meaning.
Carol is in the midst of a divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), which was brought on by her previous affairs with women. She remains close friends with one of those women, Abby (the wonderful Sarah Paulson), whom she treats as a confidante. Harge could have been played as a villain, but here he comes across more as sad and confused, bewildered by the woman he thought he knew.
Though the film is titled after Blanchett's character, it's really Therese's story. As her early innocence gives way to a more confident, secure woman, Mara gives her best performance to date. Blanchett offers a much different vision of glamour then she did in "Cinderella" earlier this year (though also costumed by Sandy Powell). Here, an oversized fur coat feels like a suit of armor, a larger-than-life persona she dons to shield her true self from the world.
"Carol" is as richly detailed and designed as Haynes' fans have come to expect. The dreamy cinematography by Ed Lachman, shooting on Super 16 film, adds a lovely texture. Carter Burwell's hauntingly melancholy score emphasizes the story's muted passion. For much of the film, Carol and Therese barely touch, yet every glance and slight caress conveys so much. Haynes' films can sometimes be chilly and overly mannered, but there's a deeply felt emotion throughout, and the closing scenes hold an immense power ("Carol" rivals "Phoenix" when it comes to perfect film endings of 2015). The film earns its subtle, emotional climax, all the more potent because we know how much these women are desperate to express.