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‘Carol’: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara in top form as an intriguing couple

Whether you believe in actual love at first sight or you think the whole notion is a myth sprung from fairy tales and romance novels and the movies, I’ll bet you’ve had a BAM-POW moment at some point in your life — that split-second when you see someone across the room for the first time, and it feels as if your heart has stopped for a second, and you wonder:

Who’s THAT?

Such a moment occurs in Todd Haynes’ elegant and quietly powerful “Carol” — and that it occurs between two women, and the setting is early 1950s America, only reinforces the universality of instant, undeniable mutual attraction.

Even if it means lives could be shattered if you follow up on that initial feeling.

This is a beautiful film, bathed in tones that give off a nostalgic, 1950s vibe. The cinematography by Edward Lachman is pitch perfect for the time period; if you took a screen capture of just about any frame of the film, it might well resemble a painting occupying a quiet, lonely corner of a respected museum.

Haynes directs with a subtle precision, the script by Phyllis Nagy is a well-crafted gem, and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara make for one of the most intriguing and memorable movie couples of the year.

Blanchett, who has never met an era in which she didn’t appear to be thoroughly of that time, plays Carol, a well-to-do wife and mother from New Jersey.

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Christmas shopping for her daughter in a Manhattan department store, Carol makes eye contact with Therese (Rooney Mara), and neither one can deny the magnetic force. Carol is the type of woman who on the outside always appears to be in control and knows exactly what she wants. (Of course Blanchett makes the role her own, but if Hollywood had been up for actually making this movie in the 1950s — it’s based on a Patricia Highsmith novel from the time — Bette Davis would have been perfect for the role.) She’s quite a bit older than Therese, who is just starting to find her way in life, so in addition to the myriad and scandalous implications of the two actually getting together, there are some generational issues as well.

Therese is a sweet, almost fragile young woman, still regarding much of the world with almost childlike wonder. (Just before the department store opens for business and the lights go on, Therese, all by herself, regards an electric train set with quiet delight.) With her short hair and gamine features, Rooney bears more than a passing resemblance to Audrey Hepburn.

Carol’s marriage has already come apart at the seams by the time she meets Therese. Kyle Chandler gives an excellent performance as Carol’s husband, Harge. Aware of Carol’s previous relationship with a woman named Abby (Sarah Paulson), Harge takes one look at Therese and is immediately suspicious. “Just how do you know my wife?” he says to Therese, and it comes across as more of an accusation than an express of curiosity. (Why don’t we go ahead and cast Jimmy Stewart in our hypothetical 1950s version of the film and be done with it?)

As Harge takes legal steps to keep Carol away from their daughter on “moral grounds,” Carol and Therese form a friendship, dancing around the obvious and powerful connection they’re feeling — until they go on a road trip together, and they’re free to express their love.

Of course, eventually they’ll have to return to the real world, where Carol’s relationship with Therese could mean she won’t be able to participate in the upbringing of her daughter. Meanwhile, Therese has to decide which direction her life will take.

Director Haynes has a knack for framing his characters with just the right touch. There are no throwaway shots in this film. The music by Carter Burwell is fittingly lush and dramatic. The set design and art direction reflect a meticulous, artistic attention to detail.

Cate Blanchett plays the title character and she is her usual magnificent self, but Rooney Mara’s Therese is the character that makes the lasting impression. This is the finest piece of acting the talented Rooney has done in her career, and she deserves serious Oscar consideration.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Todd Haynes and written by Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language). Opens Friday at local theaters.