With her Mamie Eisenhower bangs and heart-shaped face, Rooney Mara in Carol becomes the reincarnation of such '50s icons as Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, and Maggie McNamara -- particularly the McNamara of The Moon Is Blue (Otto Preminger, 1953), that once-scandalous play and movie about a young woman who defies convention by talking openly about sex while retaining her virginity. It's just coincidence that Carol is set at the end of 1952 and into 1953, the year of the release of The Moon Is Blue, but the juxtaposition of McNamara's Patty O'Neill and Mara's Therese Belivet seems to me appropriate because the 1950s have become such a touchstone for examining our attitudes toward sex. Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, adapting a novel by Patricia Highsmith, have done an exemplary job in Carol of not tilting the emphasis toward Grease-style caricature or Mad Men-style satire of the era, or exploiting the same-sex relationship in the film for sensationalism or statement-making. Carol is a story about people in relationships, clear-sightedly viewed in a way that Therese herself would endorse. After asking her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) if he's ever been in love with a boy and receiving a shocked reply that he's only "heard of people like that," Therese replies, "I don't mean people like that. I just mean two people who fall in love with each other." It's this matter-of-factness that the film tries to maintain throughout its story of Therese and Carol (Cate Blanchett), the well-to-do wife in a failing marriage. That the film is set in the 1950s, when cracks were showing in the conventional attitudes toward both marriage and homosexuality, gives piquancy to their relationship, but it doesn't limit it. The story could be (and probably is) playing itself out today in various combinations of sexual identity. The film works in large part because of the steadiness of Haynes at the helm, with two extraordinary actresses at the center and beautiful support from Sarah Paulson as Abby, Carol's ex-lover, and Kyle Chandler (one of those largely unsung actors like the late Bill Paxton who make almost everything they appear in better) as Carol's husband, the hard-edged Harge Aird. The sonic texture of the 1950s is splendidly provided by Carter Burwell's score and a selection of classic popular music by artists like Woody Herman, Georgia Gibbs, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Jo Stafford, and Billie Holiday.