Review: ‘TÁR’

Cate Blanchett Puts On A Master Class In Todd Field's Triumphant Return Film

After sixteen years away, making his first film since 2006’s Little Children, Todd Field is open to taking some big chances. His masterful TÁR is nothing but a beautifully orchestrated gamble that threatens to topple at any moment. Even the backwards opening, in which the entire production crew is credited first, lasts so long it threatens to confuse the audience into thinking something has gone wrong. Certainly, that happened at my screening. But the subject matter, as well, set as as the story is within the classical orchestra community, taking on issues of gender, genius, corruption, and all within a nearly 3-hour package. Field gave himself an imposing challenge for a comeback, and it’s one that, with the help of a career best Cate Blanchett, he is able to guide to something close to perfection.

There’s no easy way to describe what TÁR is. It is the story of Lydia Tár (Blanchett), a world renowned classical composer/conductor, in a field that has largely been dominated by men for literally hundreds of years.  This isn’t some minor fact. The patriarchal nature of her chosen art looms heavy, although the abrasive Lydia isn’t always willing to confront it or her place in it. Lydia is many things at once. She is a loving partner to Sharon (Nina Hoss), a member of her orchestra and co-parent to their adopted daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). She is a member of the EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony winners), a teacher, a recording artist, a lecturer. Lydia is being pulled in many directions at once, but has stayed focus on her goal. She is just weeks away from what could be her greatest triumph; completion of the five Mahler adaptations, honoring one of her heroes.

An orchestra is a machine, run by many moving parts. The conductor is the one who makes it all go and run in perfect harmony…

“Time is the thing. Time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me; I start the clock.”

Okay, but what happens when the clock is out of sync? TÁR is about a woman who seems perfectly composed to those on the outside, but to those who get deeper they can see cracks in the foundation. This is a fall-from-grace story, but Field and Blanchett aren’t giving us the orchestral equivalent of a rock music biopic with a similar theme. We’ve seen enough of those. Lydia can never be counted on to be just one thing. She can be both a loving mother, and at the same time a guest lecturer who humiliates a student because she does not agree with his personal values. Lydia is someone who isn’t afraid to use her power to brush aside old white men too comfortable in their positions, while defending them in the next breath. She is willing to use her considerable influence to offer more opportunities to female composers, only to lead those same women around by the nose to great personal harm.

There are secrets. Lydia won’t discuss a pupil from her past. There are suggestions of possible indiscretions, and clearly some animosity with her current assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant). The demands never stop. The pressure never eases up. Lydia is always “on” because someone is always watching. The performance can never stop. How can someone, even someone as great as Lydia Tar, not come apart at the seams?

You’ll hear a lot about the TÁR runtime, and for good reason. At 158 minutes it’s quite a marathon, and Field doesn’t need to include everything we see to get where the story eventually goes. But time is also a funny thing, because even as I knew the film was going too long, I was massively entertained by it. That’s 100% due to Blanchett. What is a tour de force for someone like Blanchett, who has already won two Oscars and just about everything else an actor can possibly win? She is phenomenal in a role that swings, quite like a mentronome, wildly from emotion to emotion; from placid as a lake to the angry wail of an accordion. And all of the while, Lydia remains someone that we never judge. Field doesn’t pass judgement on her, that’s for certain. She is a flawed, fully-rounded figure whose every action is deeply revealing, but never everything.

Field is at the top of his game, and it almost makes you sad that we’ve been without his talents for so long. TÁR brushes up against a number of contemporary issues without getting preachy, while charting Lydia’s trajectory with the insight of a docudrama. We feel like flies on the wall of Lydia’s personal life and career, with all of the unpredictiability that comes with it.  While you’re expected to soak in the swooning orchestral scores, Field enhances all of the sounds that surround Lydia at all times. Every chirp, every knock, every creak that sounds like it’s from a horror movie, they all matter. They all have purpose. With Field as the master conductor, and Blanchett the prized soloist, TÁR is like an orchestra where every section is performing in perfect harmony, creating the most beautiful music.

TÁR opens in DC on October 14th.


Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-tarAfter sixteen years away, making his first film since 2006's Little Children, Todd Field is open to taking some big chances. His masterful TÁR is nothing but a beautifully orchestrated gamble that threatens to topple at any moment. Even the backwards opening, in which the entire...