RATING |

The Bantam paperback edition of

The Price of Salt

, the Patricia Highsmith novel that has been transformed into the achingly beautiful Todd Haynes film

Carol

, came out in 1953. The cover: pulp art of a woman, standing, smoking, her hand on the shoulder of another woman, seated at a couch. The figure of a man is in the background, his stance suggesting dismay, rage. The tagline on the top of the cover: "The novel of a love society forbids." The author? "Claire Morgan." In the 1950s, a lesbian love story was scandalous stuff, not the sort of thing a budding author would want her name on. (Highsmith's first book was

Strangers on a Train

, published in 1950, and famously adapted to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Sociopathic murderer OK, lesbians not so much.)

With a finely etched screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, Carol circles back to those same 1950s, to a society full of cultural constrictions and contradictions, and to a young woman, Therese (Rooney Mara), working in the toy department of a New York City department store.

It is Christmastime - hence Therese's shopgirl Santa's-helper hat. A woman in a fur coat steps off the elevators, looking at the dolls, the trains. From across the room, Therese eyes Carol (Cate Blanchett), and something mysterious, electric, hovers in the air.

It's not long before Carol, a well-to-do suburbanite with a daughter and a stifled marriage, is inviting Therese to lunch, to cocktails, to her home.

And Therese, who has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy) and an idea that she wants to be a photographer, goes along - not exactly sure what is happening, only sure that she is falling in love.

Carol shares a time period and some of the themes of Haynes' Douglas Sirk homage Far from Heaven, in which a husband (Dennis Quaid) struggles to come to terms with his closeted homosexuality. But where that film was full of lush color and melodrama, Carol is muted, reflective, interior in its approach. (Kyle Chandler plays Carol's husband, who has his own struggles to bear.)

Mara's Therese is like a fragile bird - you can see her shudder, quake. Blanchett's Carol is half predator, half teacher. But what comes across, at first, as a sort of theatrical aloofness in Carol reveals itself to be a guise, a desperate front. Inside, this older woman hurts just as much, loves just as much, as the younger one.

Mara and Blanchett are each extraordinary, working in the most organic and soul-stirring ways. There's a getaway, a road trip, with stops in an Ohio motel, a diner (the Spare Time) and a swell Chicago hotel. A fellow guest in that Canton hostelry introduces himself to Therese as a notions salesman. Who he really is, and what he's really doing, is as close to a traditional Highsmith story, with its noirish intrigue, as Carol gets.

Billie Holiday's "Easy Living," Jimmy Scott's "Something from a Fool," Les Paul and Mary Ford's "Smoke Rings" - the music in Carol is queued up perfectly, the bluesy rhymes wrapping the two lovers in a cocoon of cool obsession.

There's a scene early in Carol, before Therese begins her headlong fall, when she's in a projection booth at a theater with a few friends. Sunset Boulevard is flickering on the screen, and one of Therese's friends, a cineaste, a writer, explains how he is charting the correlation between what the characters in the film are saying and what they really feel.

By the end of Carol, that distinction - between words uttered and the emotions behind them - has become epic in scale. Therese climbs into a car and stares out of the rain-splattered window, catching the streaked lights of the city at night. Her eyes are looking outward, but what's moving through her heart is something else all together.

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@Steven_Rea

Carol **** (Out of four stars)

Written by Phyllis Nagy, directed by Todd Haynes. With Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, and Jake Lacy. Distributed by

the Weinstein Co.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.

Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes).

Playing at: Select area theaters.EndText