CAROL (15, 119 mins)

Romance/Drama. Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Cory Michael Smith, Sadie Heim, KK Heim. Director: Todd Haynes.Released: November 27 (UK & Ireland)

Love tears good people apart in Todd Haynes' masterful period drama based on the novel The Price Of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.

Elegantly adapted by Phyllis Nagy, Carol charts an unlikely romance between a shop girl and a glamorous housewife against the backdrop of early 1950s New York.

The impeccable style of the era conceals a maelstrom of messy, raw emotion, which overflows in the film's heartbreaking second act as forbidden lovers discover the terrible cost of their liaisons.

In a year blessed with extraordinary performances from actresses, Haynes' picture boasts the mesmerizing on-screen pairing of Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as independent women from opposite sides of the social divide, who seek refuge in each other's arms.

They are both exquisite, exposing the chinks in their characters' brittle armour as giddiness turns to despair in the cold light of day.

Every line of dialogue is beautifully tailored, complemented by gorgeous costumes and production design that capture the restrictive social mores of a time when every conversation was conducted beneath gently entwining tendrils of smoke.

"Just when you think it can't get any worse, you run out of cigarettes," jokes the title character during one tense exchange.

Mara plays shrinking violet Therese Belivet, who works in the toy section of Frankenberg's department store.

She has an adoring boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), but her humdrum life lacks excitement until Carol Aird (Blanchett) sashays into the store looking for a Christmas present.

The two women exchange pleasantries and Carol orders an expensive train set.

She leaves, forgetting her pair of black leather gloves.

Therese kindly returns the items and Carol reciprocates with an offer of lunch.

Conversation is initially stilted, underscored with an unspoken erotic charge, and Carol enquires about Therese's relationship with Richard.

"Would you like to marry him?" she asks.

"I... barely know what to order for lunch," jokes Therese.

The bond between the women deepens, kindling a passionate affair, which forces Carol's estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) to seek sole custody of their daughter Rindy (Sadie and KK Heim).

Best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) is dragged into the acrimonious legal battle and Carol pleads with Harge to let go of her and his bitterness.

"We go to court and it gets ugly," she tells him tenderly. "We're not ugly people, Harge."

Carol is a triumph, anchored by Mara and Blanchett's flawless embodiment of their star-crossed protagonists.

Paulson delivers impassioned support and Chandler oozes weariness and despair as the spouse, who resorts to spite to cling onto his failed marriage.

Director Haynes is no stranger to the era, having considered matters of class and sexual orientation in suburban 1950s Connecticut in the Oscar nominated drama Far From Heaven.

He is equally accomplished here, rendering the emotional devastation in meticulous, controlled brushstrokes.

We're spellbound as his paint dries.