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Everything is so perfectly beautiful in "Carol," director Todd Haynes' '50s melodrama, that it more closely resembles a museum diorama than a movie — until its luminous stars, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, breathe life and passion into it.

Blanchett plays the title role, the well-to-do older woman Carol Aird, whom we meet in the bar of a Manhattan hotel, sharing a table with Mara's character, Therese Belivet. They seem to be in the middle of a deep conversation, interrupted when a young man recognizes Therese and offers her a ride to their friends' party. Carol tells Therese to go off with the man, but something in Therese's look suggests she's torn.

As Phyllis Nagy's script (adapting Patricia Highsmith's novel "The Price of Salt") unfolds, the story returns to the moment Carol and Therese meet. It's Christmastime, and Therese is working in the toy department of a New York department store. Carol comes in, wearing a fur coat and an air of detached wealth, looking for a doll for her daughter, Rindy. Therese gently steers Carol toward buying a train set, and Carol agrees. After the transaction, Therese notices that Carol has left her gloves behind.

Therese mails the gloves back to Carol, who in gratitude offers to take her to lunch. The conversation steers to the respective men in their lives: Carol is in the process of divorcing her rich husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), while Therese has a boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), but is reluctant to commit.

Through lunch, there is an unspoken but undeniable attraction between the two women — an attraction perceived by Carol's longtime friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). This attraction, and the question of whether they should act on it, brings Carol and Therese together first at Christmas and then on a fateful road trip.

Haynes has played with the conventions of the '50s romantic drama before (in 2002's "Far From Heaven" and his miniseries remake of "Mildred Pierce"), but in "Carol," he deconstructs the Douglas Sirk model fully. Haynes conjures up the trappings of a Sirk romance, with all of the insinuations and longing, and applies that to what in Sirk's age would be unimaginable — a love affair between two women.

This rebuilding of a bygone movie style — sumptuously realized by cinematographer Edward Lachman, production designer Judy Becker and costume designer Sandy Powell — runs the risk of being flat and emotionless. "Carol" is saved from that fate by its astonishing leads.

Carol, with her graceful airs and underlying desire, is tailor-made for Blanchett's ethereal talent and fine reading of detail. Mara is the wild card, and she finds in the mousy Therese an inner drive to confound outside expectations about her romantic life or her goals beyond life as a shopgirl. Between them, "Carol" turns from a sedate exercise in form to a romance whose fire can barely be contained by convention. —



Director Todd Haynes uses the trappings of '50s romantic drama for this artful and passionate tale of two women in love.

Where • Area theaters.

When • Opens Friday, Jan. 8.

Rating • R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.

Running time • 118 minutes.