It's the early 1950s, and Manhattan shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is on the phone with Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a married socialite who arouses feelings shy Therese can't articulate. "Ask me things," says Carol. And the way Blanchett, an actress of sublime beauty and brilliance, caresses the word "things," opens up a universe of unspoken desire. That's a specialty for director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), who reaches a new peak of film artistry.
Phyllis Nagy adapted her delicately nuanced script from a book, The Price of Salt, that suspense author Patricia Highsmith published under a pseudonym. Sure, a lesbian love story was hot stuff in 1952, but a lesbian love story with hints of a happy ending – that was revolutionary.
Camera virtuoso Edward Lachman finds visual poetry in the hothouse eroticism that envelops Carol and Therese, an amateur photographer who keeps framing Carol in her lens. Blanchett, a dream walking in Sandy Powell's frocks, delivers a master class in acting. And Mara is flawless, revealing Therese's sexual confusion as she moves away from boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) and toward a seductive unknown. When the two women drive cross-country, lost in each other, Carol's husband, Harge (a fiercely fine Kyle Chandler), shows his resentment by suing for custody of their daughter.
Haynes' commitment to outcasts, then and now, makes Carol a romantic spellbinder that cuts deep. It's one of the year's very best films. Blanchett and Mara should have Oscar calling for giving heroic dimensions to characters who step out of the shadows and into a harsh world that their courage just might change. I wanted to cheer.