Todd Haynes’ wondrous Patricia Highsmith adaptation is seemingly set inside a beautiful movie made in the 1950s.

Cate Blanchett in Carol.
Cate Blanchett in Carol.

Courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

The director Todd Haynes and the novelist Patricia Highsmith fit together like a hand and glove—a beautifully manicured hand and a sleek gray-green leather glove, two images that figure prominently in Carol, Haynes’ ravishing adaptation of Highsmith’s pseudonymously written second novel The Price of Salt. Why did Highsmith, an up-and-coming thriller writer whose first book, Strangers on a Train, had just been made into a hit movie by Alfred Hitchcock, decide to publish her 1952 follow-up under the name Claire Morgan and acknowledge authorship of the work only toward the end of her life? Because The Price of Salt was an explicitly lesbian romance based on real events from Highsmith’s youth.

Not only that, it was a frankly erotic tale in which the central couple was shown as neither depraved nor aberrant. Girl-on-girl love might have gotten a pass in a trashy dime novel in those days, as long as one or both of the lovers ended her days in a tragic drag-racing crash or other form of sexy karmic retribution. But an elegantly spare literary novel about the affair between a 19-year-old shopgirl and a thirtysomething divorced mother would hardly have been a résumé-builder for the then 31-year-old Highsmith, who went on to write a raft of successful crime novels that would lend themselves remarkably well to big-screen adaptation.

Haynes may be the most ideally suited adaptor of Highsmith’s work since Hitchcock (though the much-missed Anthony Minghella did a fine job of capturing the author’s malicious wit in The Talented Mr. Ripley). Since the early 1990s, Haynes has been turning out painstakingly crafted, jewel-toned pictures that aren’t like anyone else’s—not even those of the classic Hollywood masters whose techniques he often knowingly cops (sometimes Hitchcock himself; sometimes Douglas Sirk, the Michelangelo of 1950s melodrama). Haynes’ movies are sensuous and cerebral at the same time. They submerge—less ardent fans than I might say “trap”—the viewer in a richly detailed and aesthetically complete universe whose deliberate artificiality is part of the point. And they often, though by no means always, center on aspects of the queer struggle—themes to which Highsmith’s novels after The Price of Salt continued to return, if only in oblique, highly allegorized fashion.

I sometimes think of Todd Haynes films as being varnished, as if the image were being seen through a glossy coat of lacquer. If that’s the case Carol’s finish is extra-thick, but matte. From the first scene—in which a young man interrupts a banal yet intriguingly charged exchange between two women in a hotel restaurant—the movie seems to take place not exactly during the early 1950s, but inside a movie made at that time. Or maybe it’s inside an Edward Hopper painting, one of those melancholy urban landscapes punctuated by bursts of expressive color. (The film was shot on 16mm film by Ed Lachman, who also shot Haynes’ flawless Sirk pastiche Far From Heaven.)

But back to those enigmatic ladies at the hotel restaurant. The younger one, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), works at the toy counter of a New York department store. A few days before Christmas, Therese sells a toy train to a stylish, fur-draped matron, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), and they have a brief but friendly chat as they conclude the transaction. Carol leaves behind her gloves (see above; gray-green leather, sleek), and Therese arranges to send them to her house in New Jersey. By way of thanks, Carol treats her to a casually posh workday lunch (one that, like every meal in Highsmith’s world, gets washed down by at least two stiff cocktails).

The development of Therese and Carol’s relationship from acquaintances to friends to lovers is fast relative to their own timeframe—by early January, the two are hot and heavy—but in terms of screen time, the build is agonizingly slow. Their love isn’t consummated until around an hour in, on a post-Christmas road trip in Carol’s magnificent taupe Packard. (When the sex scene does come it’s more allusive than graphic, but it’s frank in the European style, with both actresses seen naked from the waist up.)

Carol’s front-loaded structure suits its story and theme: Same-sex relationships in a closeted age no doubt did rely on just this kind of slow-burning, heavily coded flirtation. And when the truth was uncovered, or intuited—as it is, dimly, by Carol’s about-to-be-ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s not-quite-yet-boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy)—romantic idylls no doubt did fall apart with astonishing speed.* I won’t disclose what happens with Therese and Carol after their road trip, except to ask those critics who find Todd Haynes’ films emotionally remote to please lend me their handkerchiefs, as mine is soaked through. But the last scene—which accomplishes everything the book’s achingly romantic ending does without a line of dialogue—is a corker.

Rooney’s Therese has been stripped of a backstory—in the novel, the character’s mother had abandoned her to a religious boarding school in late childhood (an element of the story drawn from the author’s own life). Without this context it’s harder to sound the depths of the young woman’s loneliness, but Mara—who looks younger than in her last few movies, her angular face dominated by a pair of huge soulful eyes—makes us feel Therese’s thrilled surprise at her own metamorphosis from passive, resigned caterpillar to sexually fulfilled butterfly. (The delectable costumes by Sandy Powell play more than a decorative part in this transformation: When she loses the girlish tam-o’-shanter that made her look like a teenage Audrey Hepburn, we know that Therese has grown up for good.)

A part of me doesn’t want Cate Blanchett to get the awards recognition she no doubt will for playing Carol, because, divine as Blanchett is in the part, the character’s bruised glamor is a register in which we already know she can play. (Brie Larson’s utterly deglamorized kidnapping prisoner in Room seems to me the more difficult and surprising performance this year.) That said, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Blanchett in this role. Her old-world movie-star presence, the panache with which she brandishes a cigarette lighter or handles an old-fashioned steering wheel, makes the actress seem—in the best way—like one more element of the movie’s luxurious, burnished surface. We never quite know what Carol is thinking, which puts us in the same position as the smitten and pining Therese, whose idealization of her beloved is wryly punctured by Carol’s best friend and ex-lover Abby (a fantastic if too seldom seen Sarah Paulson).

At that first tipsy lunch with Carol, the Therese of the book mentions her love object’s “dusky and faintly sweet” perfume, “a smell suggestive of dark green silk.” Later, a cup of warm milk is described as tasting “of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo.” That same mood of sensual synesthetic reverie pervades the movie, without Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay resorting to florid bursts of voiceover or, worse, dialogue. (“Hey, what’s that perfume you’re wearing? It smells just like dark green silk!”) Nagy’s spare script, Haynes’ and Lachman’s deft camera placement, Judy Becker’s lush production design, and Carter Burwell’s melodic score (augmented by period songs from the likes of Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford) come together to tell a single, powerful love story, all the parts coalescing into something they used to call cinema.

*Correction, Nov. 19, 2015: This review originally misidentified the character of Harge as Carol’s “about-to-be-husband.” He is Carol’s about-to-be-ex-husband. (Return.)