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Tár

Year: 2022
Production Co: Focus Features
Director: Todd Field
Producer: Todd Field
Writer: Todd Field
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong

Before I watched this movie I thought it was going to be an – albeit very calm and clinical – screed against cancel culture. All I knew about it was that it was about a very successful orchestra conductor who has accusations of misconduct levelled against her.

And it is kind of that, but writer/director Todd Field layers it in with such a clear depiction of a particular contemporary social strata it's easy to miss.

Lydia Tár is a renowned conductor on the cusp of mounting a highly anticipated new show, releasing a book about her life and any number of other achievements.

She's aided by clipped and efficient assistant Francesca, she's in a relationship with a women in her orchestra with whom she has a young daughter and she has a professional connection (which I couldn't quite work out because of how specific to the machinations of their world their dialogue is) with a wealthy patron (Mark Strong).

But over the course of what feels like about a week, Lydia's world unravels. In a music class, she's in the midst of dressing down a woke student who doesn't want to play Bach because he was a straight white man, so he walks out in a butt hurt huff, which she treats flippantly.

When she becomes aware of a girl at school bullying her daughter she fronts up to the girl and threatens her with harm, and that she'll harm her if she tells her parents.

She wants to remove her longtime assistant conductor and get fresh blood in. She falls under the spell of a beautiful young Russian cello prodigy which causes discord in her relationship with her wife, especially when she manipulates the audition process to ensure the young girl gets a spot.

A young woman – who was once a promising member of the orchestra but who she ousted long ago because of some personal sleight – commits suicide, and Lydia instructs Francesca to delete all the desperate and unhinged emails the girl sent to them both in case it reflects badly on them when the inevitable fallout hits. Finally a manipulated video of her chewing out the woke student surfaces online, making her look like a monster.

They're all examples of her softly abusing her power and position, but in a lesser film the retribution would be both swifter and more obvious. Field is more interested in showing how it might really look, a slow burn process that unfolds steadily.

Because all the while it's going on, Lydia seems to be unravelling mentally. While jogging in the park she hears a woman screaming nearby, running off to see what's wrong but unable to pinpoint the direction. She develops an obsessive sensitivity to the sound of a medical device in the apartment next to the one her and her family live in. She finds herself in nightmarish situations where she hallucinates terrible visions.

Is it all an effect of guilt because she knows what she's done and how she's treated people, even her seemingly unflappable assistant (who abruptly quits one day, leaving Lydia floundering and barely functional)? The script never answers you fully.

It shouldn't work and it shouldn't be the least bit interesting. For a far more straight-down-the-line depiction of the abuse of power in the arts, see The Assistant.

But Blanchett sweats talent out of her pores just from moving and is great in anything, and Field draws such a particular world it's impossible not to be impressed with his execution.

There's dramatic heat here, but it's pulsating under the surface of the intelligence of the characters and the clean lines and fine material they live among. Even the warmth of a family home is cool, clean-lined and unemotional.

It's one for critics rather than mainstream audiences, but it's extremely well made. Interestingly enough, if it is intended to be be documenting the abuse of power it doesn't really succeed in doing so fully because the fall and retribution just aren't clearly front and centre enough.

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