Don’t be deluded by the title’s suggestion of a documentary about the icky black substance filling highway potholes. The film is a soaring A Major symphony conducted by Cate Blanchett (two Oscars, and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for “Tar” March 12), waving her baton as Lydia Tar, an American piano virtuoso and true music genius. Tar is also on the podium of the acclaimed Berlin Philharmonic.
The film may not hit the right notes to those with a mild affection for the classical repertoire (Gustav Mahler’s complex Fifth Symphony anchors the narrative), but as Lydia rigidly prepares, studying the problematic score, and putting her players through exhausting rehearsals for an upcoming concert performance, we note she’s motivated by the selfish aim of building a reputation as the topmost conductor in the realm of serious music.
I pause here to shout glorious praise for Blanchett who fills the big screen with a blast of thespian power recalling her engrossing dramatics in “Carol” (2015). Sit back and enjoy her master class in acting as Lydia, exerting an overpowering presence, addressed by colleagues as “maestro”, lives up to her magisterial reputation.
Lydia’s private life is also attached to the classical music world, her wife being the orchestra’s first violinist (Nina Hoss), with whom she has a child. It’s not a smooth-running union, problems plague Lydia’s life. She’s connected with a scholarship programme for women, headed by a tiresome, bombastic, self professed baton waver (Mark Strong). The teaching sessions apparently allow Lydia opportunities for affairs with the young women enrolled.
Blanchett shows assurance, fearlessly undertaking serious roles, (it would be a delight to see her dramatics onstage). As an enthusiast of her talents, methinks perhaps it’s an inward life giving challenge sustaining her personal thespian desires. Whatever, La Blanchett dominates, radiates and thrills. Writer/director Todd Field has crafted a psychodrama with sensual, egregious and disordered elements showing a passionate Lydia on a slide, emotionally falling apart as viewers are swept up along the way.
Critical reviews have been strong, although an interesting sting from prominent American conductor Marin Alsop (Baltimore Symphony) takes a differing view. Alsop brands the film as “anti-woman.” “I was offended: I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.” Alsop continues, “To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser — for me that was heartbreaking.”
Blanchett replies to Alsop’s point of view, “It’s a meditation on power, and power is genderless.” She adds, “The film is designed to spark conversations, and that her character is entirely fictitious.” Director Field backs up Blanchett’s viewpoint, claiming his film is about power – “our hope was to invite an audience in to ask their own questions and have their own opinions, and everyone’s entitled to them.”
Playing out at 2h 38m, “Tar” has a number of positive elements supporting Blanchett’s impressive contribution. The narrative’s classical music theme lifts the curtain to the backstage viewing of a highly strung, punishing, demanding artform. Singers and players who have studied hard and long building a career are challenged by the arduous climb to recognition.
For the viewer though, “Tar” crackling with word and visuals, is a symphony in itself. Blanchett had to master the art of authentically waving the baton, giving crediting to her major source of inspiration, “To the music, it’s a mercurial art form. When you see a conductor from the audience, they always look slightly arrhythmic, you think ‘are you a musician, because you seem to be so out of time with what the orchestra is playing?’”
This film (theaters, various platforms) is an attraction to serious music aficionados, but serious acting by Cate Blanchett powering her way through the narrative should earn applause. It will increase your knowledge of the classical repertoire beyond the William Tell Overture (“The Lone Ranger” theme).
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