Focus Features’ “Tár” is certain to collect multiple statues at this year’s Academy Awards, having already been named best film by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics.
Writer/director Todd Field (Oscar nominated for “Little Children”) returns to theaters after his nearly two-decade hiatus with two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine,” “The Aviator”) portraying Lydia Tár.
This engrossing drama is set in the upper echelon of classical music, dissecting the downfall of a world-renowned conductor at the apex of her career. Field isn’t interested in crafting a villain or some kind of admirable figure with the character of Lydia Tár. Instead, he’s written a brilliantly nuanced role interpreted through the lens of Blanchett’s impeccable instrument. His writing flows in a manner that’s equally compelling and unapologetic, a catalyst for conversation after the credits roll (in this case rolling at the start of the film).
With a runtime of two and a half hours, “Tár” refuses to rush itself and yet it never approaches a feeling of stagnation. The opening conversation between Lydia Tár and a moderator in a packed auditorium is an absolutely electric seven minutes of screen time.
Tár speaks to the audience about her upcoming concert and how she interprets the work of composers from centuries ago, plus she’s got a book to plug and a recent magazine profile… life seems perfect for this successful, highly-driven genius.
Tár spends a lot of her time in the US, whether it’s for a book tour or guest lecturing at Julliard, she’s constantly on the move and away from her family in Germany. This distance affords Tár the opportunity to indulge impulses while ignore phone calls from her wife.
Back in Germany, Tár has a home with her talented musician wife, Sharon Goodnow (a note perfect Nina Hoss), who plays in Tár’s orchestra. Together, the two women share a daughter who finds comfort in having her feet held when she’s distressed.
It’s clear from the onset that Sharon is the more active parent while Tár bounces around the world with a sizzling hot career. It’s during one of Tár’s lectures that things start to turn, when she engages with a woke student whose personal philosophies seem absurd to her… in fact, she takes it as an affront.
Tár’s contentious back and forth is recorded on a phone, then later edited and posted online to smear her name as a bigot.
This unfounded social media crisis follows very serious — and more accurate — allegations that Lydia Tár has been engaging in sexual relationships with her students and musicians. The idea being that she favors certain students and one of them just committed suicide after lodging complaints about Tár and constantly emailing Tár in recent weeks.
The combination of those things, along with emails provided by her disgruntled assistant (Noémie Merlant), are enough to dethrone Tár from her prestigious position in Germany.
This reveal is not known to the audience until she shockingly rushes the stage and attacks her replacement conductor (a woefully underused Mark Strong). The fall from grace is very fast for Lydia Tár, and the closing moments of the film feel like they could star Kevin Spacey in substitution for Blanchett.
Tár’s fall from grace is painful to watch and that’s due to Field’s brilliant script sprinkling in very human moments for Lydia Tár. Early in the film, Tár’s wife tells her that their daughter is coming home from school bruised and that she won’t talk about it.
Tár takes it upon herself to drive their daughter to school the next day and get the truth from her. The subsequent confession and school drop off allows Tár to find the bully in question and deliver a brief but intimidating warning to cease all interactions with her daughter.
This endearing moment and the moment when Tár calms her wife’s heartbeat like a biological conductor are key to balancing the lesser qualities of Tár. The conductor has a weakness for beautiful women and when cello player Olga Metkina (a brilliant Sophie Kauer) arrives, everyone begins to talk about Tár’s grooming behavior.
This is without question Tár’s Iccarus moment, taking her young protege to America on a private jet and giving her a prominent role in her orchestra during a this very intense period of scrutiny. Tár’s already territorial assistant sees the writing on the wall as fresh meat enters their dynamic.
Once the assistant gets overlooked for an advancement in her career, she leaves Tár and sets about destroying her former boss. Noémie Merlant is given so much to play with in this small-but-pivotal role, and she delivers every time she’s on screen.
Every actor is working in unison with Field’s material and vision. It’s hard to believe that his last film was 2006’s “Little Children.” Field’s evolution as a filmmaker continues to enthrall viewers as he focuses on the craft.
Field wisely choose to collaborate with Oscar winning “Joker” composer Hildur Gudnadottir. She made history as the first female composer to win an Emmy and Oscar in the same year and just collected the Critics Choice Award for her work on “Tár” along with Blanchett winning Best Actress at CCA.
Blanchett has arguably never been better, making her an Oscar front runner for this deeply human and layered performance… the unraveling of this highly composed woman (no pun intended) is a spectacle not unlike a celestial body going supernova.
Letter Grade: A