Editor wanted to stop self-indulgent director sabotaging his own work. Normally, this would be a producer’s job but there’s so many of them (I counted 14) in this co-production that I doubt any was at the wheel of the ship, trusting the director wouldn’t do something so guaranteed to alienate an audience as stick in four minutes (or more) of credits on a blank screen at the start. Credits that, virtue-signalling gone mad, list every Tom, Dick and Harry (and potentially their dog) who so much as pushed a pen for any of the production companies involved.
That won’t erode much of the mighty 158 minutes but it will make it appear several minutes shorter, assuming the audience bolts at the end. The cinema audience I saw it with wasn’t so courteous. Some were bolting long before the end. The sound of clacking chairs could be heard on a regular basis from halfway through the film.
You what!!! But this is an acclaimed picture, 92 Metascore on Imdb! Are we going to have start screening audiences now so that only people with the taste to sit to the end are allowed in?
To be honest, I shared their pain. Absolutely terrific Oscar-worthy performance by Cate Blanchett, pretty good work too from Nina Hoss as her long-suffering partner, but boy does it go on. And on. Was the director assuming the audience was too thick to get that the eponymous lead was a bit of a fitness freak without sticking that in endlessly? It’s not like it builds tension a la Vertigo with James Stewart’s apparently endless driving.
I enjoyed quite a lot of this even though at times it felt like one of those Classic Albums documentaries where those involved dissect their work, explaining how they married a riff here with a riff there, except given the composers are all dead the only creative force available is the conductor, otherwise those pesky musicians will just go off and do their own thing.
The problem is a lot of the dialog is “dead.” It doesn’t enhance our understanding of character, build character or (God forbid!) narrative or tension. One way or another it’s just intellectual discussion of classical music. Which is fascinating – but only for a time.
The story itself is told with subtlety in some places and with a sledgehammer in others. You couldn’t have telegraphed more an impending problem with an unseen musician than have Tar (Cate Blanchett) delete email correspondence. And the minute cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) appears on the scene with her come-to-bed eyes, you know this is a femme fatale on the prowl, and expect speedy unfair promotion is on the cards at some point.
That power corrupts, whether in male or female hands, appears to the driving point of the rest of the story but you have to wait a good 90 minutes before that assumes any real significance, plus social media is presented here in its best guise as an instrument of truth.
It’s a rise and fall tale, although the climax doesn’t ring true, the director either dodging the true climactic scene, a confrontation with Tar over an enforced change in her professional status, or that didn’t take place and the first thing the conductor knows about what has occurred is when she’s about to take her place on stage. Neither decision makes much sense.
So, onto the good parts. Blanchett puts in a riveting performance, not just in her sense of her own superiority, but in managing so effortlessly to make a conversation just sound like a conversation rather than a string of points making dramatic emphasis. She leaves most of the parenting of their child to partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) only stepping in when someone needs to put a bullying girl in her place. That this relationship is long past its best is obvious from the off, and that Tar has a wandering eye is plain once Olga appears.
And although Tar seems to have a fine grasp of orchestral politics and can drive a hard bargain with those seeking financial gain, she is blind to consequence, needlessly making enemies of long-standing supporters, failure to provide promised promotion triggering betrayal.
What the film does get right (I guess, since I’m no expert) is the role of the big-name music director/conductor in the classical world, ferried across continents in private planes, knowing how to bend the rules in a business where, it transpires, the orchestra wields a great deal of power, and with a genuine genius for imbuing listeners with her enthusiasm for music.
Her interpretation of “Mahler’s Symphony No 5,” initially fascinating, soon lost its hold because I had no idea what she was up to (so I hold my hands up on that one) but you’d have to be intimately acquainted with the work to get so much out of it given the time spent exploring it. This isn’t about a composer of course and lacks Peter Shaffer’s instinct with Amadeus (“too many notes” and the scene where the ill Mozart describes his music to his arch-enemy) so quite a lot of the music stuff went over my head, leaving me with no interest in large sections of the film.
Cut down to two hours plus, okay, those four minutes of credits back in their proper position at the end, and you would have a very satisfactory movie that explored the classical musical world while detailing the downfall of a female tyrant.
Director Todd Field (Little Children, 2006) carries the can on this one.
But I would also point out to him that if you’re appealing to an adult audience and a largely arthouse one at that you’re trying to target generations that have seen all the best stuff, that respond to unusual films that take them to new places dramatically or stylistically and will not stand to be bored rigid.
People slapping down £14 to see it in their local Odeon aren’t going to be as inclined to tell people to go see it than critics watching it for free. And anybody who thinks a streaming audience isn’t going to be reaching for the switch-off button during the marathon opening credits is asking for further financial misery.