Lydia Tar is a conductor, composer and ethnomusicologist and has just been appointed to the job of conducting arguably the world’s greatest orchestra – the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Her first project in this new job is to conduct and record Gustav Mahler’s greatest work, his Fifth Symphony.
Tar is also a ferocious perfectionist and as a guest lecturer at the Juilliard School in New York, she seeks, early in the film, to encourage a young student to embrace Bach, only to be abused by him because he has an ideological opposition to the German composer.
This is where we’re first exposed to the conductor’s shortcomings. Out and gay, in a relationship and with a child, she says she never experienced the sexism and misogyny that’s befallen other women seeking to rise to the top of her profession.
This is in essence the premise of Todd Field’s third film, Tar – which he also wrote and produced – and which stars Australia’s Cate Blanchett in the title role.
Back in Berlin and working on her interpretation of Mahler, we see this giant in her field begin to confront some of life’s difficulties. It begins, disturbingly, with warnings about another child who has been hurting hers; an indicator that what she wants she gets, and that changes at the orchestra are afoot.
Her assistant, Francesca, is given the unenviable job of managing these issues. We soon learn one of Tar’s previous students, who was obsessive and in love with the conductor, has been in contact with Francesca (Noemie Merlant) this entire time.
An awful and tragic truth is revealed and Lydia’s grip on her marriage, reality, and everything she believes she can control, begins to unravel completely.
Her sense of love for the music, inspired by her mentor Leonard Bernstein, appears to be the most important casualty, because when you lose love, what is left?
Blanchett plays Tar with bombast, ingenuity and layers of complexity as she tries to manoeuvre from total control to the loss of everything.
Mahler’s dense, angular and confronting Fifth Symphony is the perfect piece of music to underscore this exercise. Interestingly, a part of the movie involving another student and Elgar’s Cello Concerto provides something of a counterpoint to the central theme.
This subplot meshes with the conductor’s narrative as she seems, even as the film is drawing closer to its conclusion, to be unaware or unwilling to admit she is human.
Of course, this is Blanchett’s movie and arguably the best thing she has done. Field’s writing is brilliant and the direction so precise you are drawn into this world where the Berlin scenery is the perfect backdrop.
The supporting cast, from Merlant to Tar’s partner, played by Nina Hoss, and the young cellist, Sophie Kauer, give the film added depth and nuance.
Field told Vanity Fair that as he was writing the film, he didn’t tell the studio much and they probably assumed it was a man in the lead role. Going even further to dissuade Focus Features, he warned them halfway through the writing process that the film was about a genius female composer whose abuses of power were catching up with her.
To his surprise, the film company green-lit the project from day one. I’m glad they did, because this is a completely enthralling piece of cinema and comes highly recommended, five stars out of five.
Tar is screening at all major cinema chains.
Marcus Kelson is a Canberra writer and film critic.