“Carol”: A swoon-worthy love story starring Cate Blanchett and based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt.” 4 stars out of 4.

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In an afterword to her 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” (published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), novelist Patricia Highsmith recalled an incident that took place when she was working in a Manhattan department store during the 1948 Christmas season. A “blondish woman” in a fur coat, “slapping a pair of gloves absently into one hand,” approached to buy a child’s gift. On the surface, it was an unexceptional encounter — the woman chose a doll, paid and departed — but Highsmith writes that she “felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.”

In real life, the two never met again. But the moment inspired a novel in which the women fall in love, and has now become the gently dazzling movie “Carol.” That word “swimmy” describes it precisely; together, director Todd Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, actors Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, cinematographer Edward Lachman and composer Carter Burwell immerse us — nearly drowning us, happily — in beauty and longing. You leave the film’s soft-grained world reluctantly, as if taking off a warm coat when it’s still a little chilly inside.

Haynes, whose nostalgic 1950s melodrama “Far from Heaven” is something of a companion piece to this film, softens Highsmith’s sometimes hard-edge world — this, remember, is the novelist best known for creating the murderous psychopath Tom Ripley. Mara plays Therese, a quiet, thoughtful young woman not yet sure what she’ll do with her life; Blanchett is the poised, precise title character — we know, without being told, that this woman smells of delicious perfume. (How does Blanchett convey that? It’s something in the posture, perhaps.) The store encounter becomes a meal, which becomes a visit to Carol’s elegant manse (where she lives with her husband and young daughter), which leads to a road trip. Along the way, they fall deeply in love: Therese instantly, like a soft thunderbolt; Carol more deliberately, but just as passionately.

Movie Review ★★★★  

‘Carol,’ with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson. Directed by Todd Haynes, from a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith. 118 minutes. Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language. Guild 45th, Lincoln Square, SIFF Uptown.

This being the 1950s, a lesbian affair brings its own peril; we know things can’t go smoothly for Therese and Carol — and they don’t. (Highsmith, though, allowed her literary doppelgänger some hope, which shines through here.) But the film is less about telling a story than creating a mood; letting us wallow in the way Blanchett’s voice, low and carefully placed, makes you think of pearls dropping onto a carpet; or how Mara’s face seems to open up and her breathing changes when Carol is nearby; or how the whole movie, with its burnished colors and city lights, looks like a Hopper painting come to life. “Carol” is, to quote Highsmith’s words written so long ago, a vision.