Carols are meant to be sung and many are singing the praises of “Carol.” With good reason. It’s one of the most gorgeous films you’ll ever see. Like an Edward Hopper painting sprung to life, its mood washes over you in an evocative mix of opulence and despair as it dizzyingly dances with the forbidden. It’s the 1950s, a period when a person’s wants and needs were routinely hushed, and anything perceived out of the norm, met with damning suspicion. Definitely not an ideal environment for same-sex attraction, as Rooney Mara’s shy little shop girl, Therese, will discover when Christmastime brings her a Carol whose notes are as sharp as hers are flat.
Outfitted in finely tailored couture of silks and furs, Cate Blanchett’s temptress with the musical name knows how to play everyone of Therese’s 88 keys like a carnivorous maestro eager to pounce. Poor Therese never sees what’s coming when her wealthy, married suitor subtlely, but passionately seduces her in calculating increments. And it pert near destroys Therese, as guilt and an unforgiving society conspire against her growing, uncontrollable lust for another woman.
The result is a heartbreaking tale of love falling victim to a backward-thinking era before the term “gay marriage” was even thought about, let alone spoken.And as only he can, Todd Haynes forces you to confront the destructiveness of “decent” people who use rancor and loathing to destroy something beautiful because they’ve been stupidly taught that not all love is pure.
While it may echo the themes of the director’s 2003 interracial drama, “Far from Heaven,” Haynes is operating on much solider ground this time. The New York-set story (which was actually shot in Cincinnati) seems less mannered, more involving and unmistakably timely in the wake of Kim Davis and the GOP’s vitriolic message of hate. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy effectively use their striking adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, “The Price of Salt,” to raise the pertinent question of why a person’s sexual preference is a cause for condemnation. Does it make them any less of a caring, loving human being? If anything, it’s the people like Carol’s stick-in-the-mud husband, Harge (the always sturdy Kyle Chandler), who are the real demons, using another person’s capacity for love as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s not as if Harge doesn’t know his wife has a thing for other females. He caught Carol messing around with her childhood friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), years ago. But like a lot of Americans in the Eisenhower years, he was in denial, passing Carol’s attraction off as a dalliance. And it’s not wrong to suspect that his motive for later having a child with Carol was tactical in nature, envisioning the kid as a potential bargaining chip.
Yet, the ideally cast Chandler is so clearly decent beneath his bigoted exterior that you sympathize instead of scorn, because like Carol, he’s living a lie. Accordingly, his scenes with Blanchett are powerful and awakening, forcing you to confront your own prejudices and misconceptions. And although I take issue with Haynes appealing to a male fantasy by presenting us with two extremely beautiful and sexy women instead of more “real-looking actresses,” I applaud him for making the many bold statements “Carol” makes.
I praise him even more for the shattering performances he culls from Blanchett and Rooney. With two Oscars on her shelf, you expect great stuff from Blanchett, but not Rooney, who delivers a stunning tour de force as Therese, the mousey department store clerk who can’t stop herself from venturing farther down the rabbithole. Looking disarmingly like a young Audrey Hepburn, Rooney makes it easy to see why Carol is so smitten with a much younger woman far below her station. The two share a potent chemistry. Or, at least they do everywhere outside the bedroom. There, the sparks simply don’t fly. In fact, their tame love making is the film’s lone weak spot.
Perhaps that’s why “Carol” doesn’t quite touch your heart as powerfully as it stimulates your admiration for its picture-perfect aesthetics. Quite simply, “Carol” dazzles. Abetted by Edward Lachman, who also shot “Far from Heaven,” the film looks like it was yanked from a 1950s time capsule, perfectly preserved. The lush, muted colors, as well as Oscar-winner Sandy Powell’s costumes and Judy Becker’s meticulously rendered, period-appropriate sets, instantly transport you back to a time when pictures thrived on their words and ideas.
Like his hero, Douglas Sirk, Haynes is a master at presenting resplendent soap opera without the kitche. His films, including his HBO remake of “Mildred Pierce” and his offbeat Bob Dylan bio, “I’m Not There” (also starring Blanchett), movingly capture the folly of trying to be yourself in a world demanding conformity. In a way, that embodies Haynes, a filmmaker who consistently finds ways to challenge perceptions and ideas that are as antiquated as Carol’s 1949 Packard. But with “Carol,” he delivers a love story that knows no bounds, only truth and compassion. And it’s transforming.

Movie review
CAROL
(R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language).
Cast includes Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson and Kyle Chandler.
Grade: A-