Though never overly emphasized, the social issues in Carol allow the movie to bite into the rotten apple of repression that defined a post-war decade dominated by a rigorous commitment to conformity.
But Haynes' adaptation of The Price of Salt, a 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel, hardly qualifies as a fiery expression of outrage against 50s hypocrisy: It's a double-edged romance -- one between two women and the other between Haynes and the style of the '50s.
The most powerful figure in screenwriter Phyllis Nagy's screenplay -- at least at first blush -- is Carol (Cate Blanchett): Carol lives in an upper-middle class life in suburban New Jersey. She once had an affair with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson). She's well aware of her sexuality, but is languishing in a marriage that exists only on paper.
Although Carol's husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) resents the affair, he seems willing to allow the trappings of class to mute his emotions -- at least when he's not too drunk to keep his anger and need in check.
Harge clings to Carol -- if not for love than to have someone take his arm when he attends a country club function.
Carol and Harge also have a daughter named Rindy (Kk Heim), a girl who figures into their struggle: Carol wants out of the marriage. Harge eventually threatens to keep her from her daughter.
But I get ahead of myself. The story's major event occurs early. While shopping in a Manhattan department store, Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman who's working the counter in the toy department. Carol instantly is attracted to this shop girl. It's clear that Mara's Therese feels something, as well.
Elegantly dressed, Blanchett's Carol exudes suburban superiority; for a movie in which desire plays an important role, it's interesting that Blanchett's Carol seems awfully calculating.
She leaves her gloves on Therese's counter, an obvious invitation for further contact. Later, she invites Therese to her home. She opens a door for this younger women (who wants to be a photographer), but doesn't push her through: She beckons Therese to enter.
I wondered whether Carol -- as a character -- would be possible without her fur coat, Olympian cheek bones and surface composure. If Carol lived in the South and things didn't go well for her, you could almost see her evolving into Blanche Dubois.
Rooney's performance is quieter, but she holds her own with a show of determined intensity. At the outset, Therese's life hovers in a kind of limbo: She has a boyfriend (Jake Lacy). He thinks they're on the verge of getting married. He's very wrong.
Things become clear to Lacy's Richard when Therese, who's only discovering her sexuality, agrees to take a cross-country car trip with Carol.
Carol's depressed about her inability to jettison Harge, who has spirited their daughter away. She's eager to feel free. Not surprisingly, it's on this trip that Carol and Therese first have sex -- in a motel in the town of Waterloo, Iowa.
Lots of emotion roils beneath the surface here, but Carol doesn't always take full advantage of its potential. The movie can be slow and intermittent in its ability to intrigue, but it builds as it goes. And Haynes finds a way (better not disclosed here) to give the movie's ending some kick.
Carol and Therese are two characters who don't necessarily live in the '50s; they live in a world that has been production designed, costumed and turned into a diorama: Carol can feel a bit airless.
And that may result from the conflict that animates Haynes' work: He seems to love the style of the '50s while chafing against the decade's constraints. It's weird in a way: The movie's volatile issues are bathed in the comforting nostalgia of its design, enhanced by cinematographer Ed Lachman's warmly conceived imagery.
Don't be surprised if production designer Judy Becker and costumer Sandy Powell carry home Oscar gold for their work on Carol, Haynes' second foray into the '50s after Far From Heaven (2002).
Love aside, Carol and Therese remain two very different women. They're from two different generations and two different social backgrounds. I won't say more, but I will tell you that I thought what happens to these women after Carol concludes might have made for an equally or even more interesting movie.