Fans of classic films will instantly recognize the opening scene of Carol: two star-crossed paramours (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) sit silently at a table, staring into each other's eyes, when they are suddenly interrupted by a clueless dimwit. One stands to leave, placing her hand discreetly on the shoulder of her secret lover, then departs, seemingly forever. We then flash back to when they first met. The sequence is lifted note for note from the 1945 British romance Brief Encounter, which establishes us in film-quoting Todd Haynes territory.

Carol is adapted from 1952's The Price of Salt, a semi-autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith (written under a pseudonym, as Highsmith had just found success with her debut novel Strangers on a Train and didn't dare risk her career with a lesbian story). Todd Haynes comes from an academic background, and so a Todd Haynes film is just as much a postmodern deconstruction of its subject matter as it is entertainment. Thus, as one needs to know a bit about David Bowie's life and times to appreciate Velvet Goldmine, and Bob Dylan's life and times to appreciate I'm Not There, perhaps the same could be said of Patricia Highsmith and Carol.

The catch is that Highsmith never had a strong public persona like Bowie and Dylan. What most people know of her comes from her best-known books, Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley – or, more to the point, from the movies based on those books. But for me, Carol works mainly as an insight into Highsmith's early '50s view of lesbian love. Although inspired by real events in her life, it's idealized to the degree that it feels like Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy – an old friend of Highsmith's who had once adapted Ripley for the stage – are giving the famously prickly author the posthumous gift of romantic fantasy.

The film itself is a relaxed, swoony affair, documenting a few weeks in the relationship between quiet shopgirl Therese (Mara) and glamorous almost-divorcée Carol (Blanchett). Although both actresses are great, I for one wasn't convinced by their characters' passion for each other. Blanchett always seems so untouchable that I've never bought her as a romantic lead, and while Mara's intense, spooky glare lends a nice obsessiveness to her character, I couldn't escape this feeling of, What do these women actually see in each other, beyond physical attraction? If Carol addressed this issue, it might have been a stronger film. Instead it would have us believe that these two women, who aside from sexual preferences couldn't be more different, are in fact made for each other.

As expected with a Todd Haynes film, the attention to period detail is impeccable. But it's hard not to compare it to Brooklyn, which I saw just days earlier, and which has some remarkable similarities: both movies take place in 1951-1952 and are about New York shopgirls falling in love. But Brooklyn is so warm and full of life that Carol, in contrast, feels irredeemably remote. Cultural references aside – Carol and Therese first lock eyes over a toy train set, a nod to Strangers on a Train; their motel-laden road trip feels like an homage to Lolita – the film has sparks of heat but is otherwise a chilly affair. Haynes fared much better with the earnest Far From Heaven, his other '50s-set sudser about illicit love.