Carol ★★★★½

“Carol,” based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, oozes class and elegance from every pore. Under the careful and observant direction of Todd Haynes, the picture is an exercise of dramatic tension, milking every scene for what it is worth as two characters, who happen to be lesbians, fall in love in 1950s New York City.

The work transcends sexual orientation. To label it as another “lesbian movie” or “movie for lesbians” is tantamount to saying that all books are the same solely because books’ pages are bounded by front and back covers. Such a statement fails to give where credit must be given. Here, there is a specific story, there are specific characters living in a specific time with specific circumstances that prevent them from being together.

Gay or straight or anything in between, or even outside popular and convenient labels, just about everyone is likely to be able to relate to the story’s conflict. This is because, at its core, the material is about that painful yearning for wanting to be with someone rather than a calculated, predictable, trite march toward a happy ending. The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy assumes the viewers are intelligent and so the work is able to navigate the complex circuitries of being human. It works on almost every dramatic level and it is a joy to experience two people continuing to develop intense feelings for each other throughout the course of the film’s running time.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as an older woman going through divorce and a shopgirl, respectively, are able to tap into what makes their characters tick with seeming effortlessness that there are many moments that feel so intimate, I’d completely forgotten I was watching a movie. Because their performances are able to draw us in so completely, we tend to notice the little things—like a tick near one’s lips as she hesitates to ask a question or how one looks away just subtly as she grapples with disappointment—that we typically ignore in lesser films.

The cinematography, costumes, and set decor form a strong partnership to create a gorgeous-looking film. Notice that in every scene there is something worth looking at for at least three seconds whether it be a positive image like an object in which the color pops out or a negative image such as blank wall surrounded by detailed furniture. But the beauty is never a distraction. Here, it enhances the experience. Because the picture looks beautiful, there is a subliminal and positive message that what the characters share, too, is beautiful even though people around them don’t understand or are repulsed by it, and them.

“Carol” is a highly sophisticated project that gets just about every single thing right. Imagine that it could have been just another melodramatic queer-themed film targeted toward a specific audience. Instead, credit to the writers and filmmakers for adapting the novel with utmost respect, ambition, and intelligence and delivering a film that they absolutely should be proud of.