When Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt in 1952, its subject matter was so taboo that she needed to use a pseudonym, Claire Morgan.
Almost 65 years on, there's nothing forbidden about a lesbian love story, but such a description sells Carol seriously short. Director Haynes is a noted name in the so-called New Queer cinema - though his varied filmography, which includes the Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven, the underrated Safe and the poetic Dylan collage I'm Not There, ranges widely outside that territory. But Carol is a dizzyingly romantic love story that will appeal to any filmgoer.
Exquisitely refined and as precisely calibrated as a Swiss watch, the script, by Phyllis Nagy, does not shy away from social subtext: indeed, its depiction of the rageful men (Chandler and Lacy, both superb) who seek to control the two main characters and a potent subplot involving lawyers, combine to lend it a feminist sheen. But these matters do not become the substance of the film, nor do they slow its propulsive sense of direction.
An opening scene takes us to a point near the end of the story, tipping a hat to Brief Encounter and even reproducing one of its key gestures, before the film spools back to the beginning.
The title character, though arguably not the main one, is Carol Aird (Blanchett), an enigmatically beautiful suburban housewife who is Christmas-shopping for toys in a Manhattan department store where Therese Belivet (Mara) works. The moment when the pair lock eyes and their later, over-the-counter dialogue, almost visibly pulsates with desire, and when Carol leaves her gloves behind, a second meeting is inevitable.
So, it seems, is the affair that ensues, which seems to unfold in a slightly different dimension, until the world comes crashing in. We have no sense, even if the gloves were deliberately forgotten, of Carol as a seductress, much less a predator, although she is plainly more worldly and it will transpire this is not her first entanglement. She seems as mystified by what is happening - "What a strange girl you are," she tells Therese when they first meet for lunch, "flung out of space" - as she is powerless to stop it.
Haynes' direction and Edward Lachman's sublime cinematography make the film, like the love, full of erotic mystery and emotional uncertainty: their first car ride is like a fevered dream; the lovers, alone or together, are often depicted as stationary, focused figures in busy settings.
But the film's technique, which includes a dazzlingly authentic production design, never overwhelms the sublime performances: Mara, who played Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher's Dragon Tattoo remake, and Blanchett are heartbreakingly convincing in their different ways, turning in work that never allows the craft to show or to detract from the authenticity.
In the end, it is a film of candour and truthfulness, a masterpiece in a minor key.
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy
Director: Todd Haynes
Running time: 118 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes, offensive language, nudity)
Verdict: A masterpiece in a minor key.