As Todd Field’s first film in 16 years, it’s little wonder that Tar has a lot on its mind. From COVID to cancel culture to social media to celebrity, it’s a film that is absolutely of the moment. What is perhaps its most astonishing achievement, then, is that none of this stuff ever feels forced or like an obstacle, instead using these thoroughly modern forces to present a simply masterful character study built from ingredients that could easily overwhelm or even embarrass a lesser filmmaker. Putting your film too firmly in the ‘real world’ is risky – just look this year at Glass Onion, an excellent mystery with mostly dismal social commentary – but Field does so with extraordinary skill, backed up by a colossal performance from Cate Blanchett.
Blanchett plays Lydia Tar, a world-renowned conductor and composer currently serving as conductor for the profoundly prestigious Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Her life, like the film around her, is carefully composed, balancing a creatively demanding profession with her home life with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their daughter, not to mention the politics of her industry. Yet, something darker and more chaotic is lurking at the door, with allegations of sexual improprieties and cultural insensitivity starting to rear their heads, coinciding with a newfound hyper-sensitivity to noise that is driving Lydia to distraction.
One of the more amusing sides to the reception to Tar has been confusion about whether or not Lydia is based on a real person (she isn’t) and, though that discourse can seem silly, it is understandable. As imagined by Field and Blanchett, Lydia Tar is the year’s best, and most believable, single character, always utterly convincing as the master of her domain to the point that her interactions with real-world figures fit seamlessly into the fiction. A particularly fun meta example is that one of Lydia’s proteges is Joker and Chernobyl composer Hildur Gudnadottir, who actually wrote the music for the film itself – that Field lands this early on in the film without it feeling cutesy or irritating is a swift sign that we’re in the surest possible hands.
It’s one of the very best performances of Blanchett’s storied career, right up there with her similarly magisterial work in the likes of Blue Jasmine and Carol. Her Lydia is a lion made of stone and glass, fearsome enough in presence alone that she never really needs to lose her cool – everyone, from fellow conductors to her diligent but long-suffering assistant Francesca (Noemie Merlant), is intimidated and impressed enough by default. It’s the kind of role that really only Blanchett could play, especially as Lydia’s darker and nastier impulses come to the fore.
Field trusts you to work out exactly what is going on in Lydia’s present and past and come to your own conclusions without chucking exposition or moral certainty at you, but this doesn’t mean Tar is some sort of anti-cancel culture polemic. When very pretty new cellist Olga (Sophie Kauer) joins Lydia’s orchestra, the lustful interest Lydia takes – and the favouritism borne out of that – is transparent, bordering on predatory, struck as she is by Olga’s youth, beauty, and Russian directness.
It puts the accusations made against Lydia in a stark light, and the subsequent slow collapse of her home life and prestige feels earned – right down to the exceptional and cruelly funny final shot. Field avoids easy answers, but also doesn’t use this as an excuse to hedge his moral bets, one of the smartest choices in an already ferociously intelligent script. Tar’s dialogue is snappy and funny (the early reveal that Lydia’s autobiography is called Tar on Tar pretty much cemented a five-star rating inside the first couple of scenes), and the long, uninterrupted scenes of pure dialogue end up just as captivating as the centrepiece orchestral performances.
As you would expect from a film revolving around classical music, Tar’s sound design is flawless, from a soul-rending cello solo to the inexplicable and chilling bumps in the night that haunt Lydia as she gets closer to an all-important concert. Along with incredibly clean design (sharp angles and straight lines define the architecture and even the costuming), all lensed with a crisp confidence and undeniable swagger, this infatuation with noise drags you deep into this strange, liminal world. Though this world can sometimes feel like a hermetically sealed one, Field allows for the occasional strange and distressing intrusions of other, more chaotic lives, Lydia bearing unsettlingly brief witness to the horrors experienced by her neighbours and students.
It all adds up to a genuinely monumental piece of filmmaking, a two-and-a-half-hour plus epic of stunning music and the poisoned souls of the rich and powerful. Tar really feels like Field is making up for a decade of lost time, re-announcing his prodigious talent as both writer and director, and he couldn’t ask for a better collaborator than the surely Oscar glory-bound Blanchett. Unabashedly grown up and intellectual, asking difficult questions and looking and sounding sublime whilst doing it, it’s not just a triumph for its auteur and star, but also a ray of hope. Pushed heavily by Universal Studios and doing extraordinary business in the States in its limited release, Tar is proof positive of the still-existent desire for real movies for adults to be put on the big screen. As Lydia says when describing the music of Bach, you may have your reservations, but eventually you must simply ‘come nose to nose with its magnitude’, earning a kind of hushed awe. Tar demands and deserves the very same.