Director Todd Haynes has a thing for the 1950s.

And by “thing,” I mean an uncanny ability to portray a decade typically characterized by its prim-and-proper appearances…and resulting repression. He has a way of delicately tapping into the sensibility of post-war American culture and exposing the achingly tender desires that were often kept hidden at the time.

His capabilities are stronger than ever in Carol, the adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, which stars Cate Blanchett in the titular role as an affluent suburban housewife who has a chance encounter with a timid department store clerk named Therese (Rooney Mara). Theirs is a relationship beautifully teased out over meticulously staged scenes in which both women learn more about each other and open themselves up to something they never imagined — because they live in a world that places harsh limitations on such possibilities. It’s a May-December romance that never feels trite; it’s as rich and grand as any sweeping epic in recent memory.

Mara is wonderfully doe-eyed as the younger Therese, full of a naivete that’s more sincere than foolish. She’s a listless twentysomething unsure of her future until she’s clinking martini glasses and lighting up a cigarette with the more refined Carol during a seemingly harmless lunch date. Blanchett, on the other hand, is a force in a fur wrap, mesmerized by Therese’s mystique. She not only plays Carol to juicy, luscious perfection — she fully becomes this woman trapped in a pointless marriage with her husband (a fine Kyle Chandler channeling an expectedly disapproving man’s man), tortured by a societal norm that prevents her from embodying her authentic self. The actress revels in every glance, every strut, and every delectable line she delivers while a wisp of cigarette smoke leaves her killer-red lips.

And while both women are front and center in this story, the men in their lives also play a role. Jake Lacy (who can also be seen in the schmaltzfest Love the Coopers) plays Therese’s coworker whom she dates, and John Magaro plays Dannie, a journalist who’s also smitten with her. Both actors have a chance to shine on their own as their characters struggle to understand a woman who is struggling to understand herself. Even Chandler gets his moment while sharing a scene with Carol’s longtime BFF (Sarah Paulson) in which he lashes out at something he will never grasp.

When Carol and Therese attempt to escape their lives by embarking on a road trip and find unadulterated bliss in several hotel rooms along the way, you can’t help but get caught up in the intimate thrill of their little adventure. However, Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy manage to summon an air of tension that constantly hangs over their blossoming love and adoration for one another.

In the end, Carol comes off as the perfect companion piece to 2002’s Far From Heaven, Haynes’s outstanding ode to suburban ennui of the 1950s. It’s a devastatingly gorgeous portrait of two lives that says so much while communicating so little, speaking to the basic human needs we all possess — to seek companionship, relevancy, and acknowledgment in a world that doesn’t always give it.

It’s also (easily) one of the best films of the year.