Cate Blanchett makes a strong case for Best Actress Oscar

By Richard Roeper on October 28, 2022

Cate Blanchett is such a blazing and commanding force in Tar, we almost instantly believe she's been the title character her entire life: one Lydia Tar, a globally renowned classical conductor who is a generational genius, a fiercely protective mother, a passionate lover, an influential mentor, a generous benefactor, a monstrous manipulator, an ethically questionable educator, a hot-tempered narcissist, a master at transactional relationships, a coldly efficient executive and an alleged sexual predator. 

She is brilliant. She is toxic. She is legendary. She is the real thing. She is a fraud. Even though Lydia is a wholly fictional character, she's so complex and fascinating and unforgettable, I would totally read the autobiography she's about to publish in the movie, if they released it in real life. Blanchett's performance is so ferociously engrossing, she becomes the clear front-runner for the Academy Award; at the very least, there are now just four best actress nomination slots available. 

After a couple of brief, social media-tinged moments of foreshadowing doled out like cryptic plot breadcrumbs, Tar announces its gravitas with a captivating 15-minute sequence that feels like an excerpt from a PBS special, as the New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik (played quite well by Adam Gopnik) interviews Lydia onstage in front of a packed auditorium in New York City. Gopnik's long introduction notes that Lydia is a member of the exclusive EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) club, and when his listing of other EGOT winners ends with him naming "Mel Brooks" and the crowd laughs, it's a perfect insight into the smug elitism of just about everyone in Lydia's world, including her fans. 

That opening sequence is just one of many memorable, perfectly constructed, simple yet dazzling and elegant set pieces in the film; another takes place when Lydia is teaching at Juilliard and has an intensely passive-aggressive-passive-REALLY AGGRESSIVE exchange with a student who says they identify as "a BIPOC pangender person," and as such has no interest in studying, playing or conducting the music of the Dead White German composer Bach, who fathered some 20 children. Each of these scenes, and many more, build like, well, a symphony - a symphony of Lydia's life and times. 

Working from his own original screenplay, director Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) plunges into the rarefied air of Lydia's world at a particularly exciting and chaotic time, even for Lydia. She's in rehearsals with the Berlin Philharmonic for a live recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 5; she's about to release that keenly anticipated autobiography, with the predictably pretentious title of Tar on Tar; she's involved in a long-term but increasingly fragile marriage with the orchestra's first violinist, Sharon (Nina Hoss), with whom she has an adopted daughter (Mila Bogojevic), who is being bullied at school, and she's dealing with a number of acolytes, associates and mentors, many of whom worship her to an almost unhealthy degree. (Lydia's dismissive handling of one former protege is sure to come back to haunt her.) 

Oh, and Lydia often gobbles pills to help her cope with sleeplessness and other issues, which includes her susceptibility to being disturbed by all manner of repetitive sounds, whether it's a metronome that inexplicably starts ticking in the middle of the night, a knock on her apartment door at dawn, a sound coming from the refrigerator/freezer or a woman's screams deep in the forest. (Some of these sounds are real; others, perhaps not.) Lydia is a commanding presence even in her most human and vulnerable moments, but it becomes clear she's only in control, only truly comfortable, only fully alive, when she's conducting. (Like so many great stage actors, musicians, athletes and even stand-up comedians, the problem isn't the time spent performing; it's how to come down from that exalted high and figure out what to do with the other 21 or 22 hours of the day.) 

As Lydia takes an interest in a free-spirit Russian cellist named Olga (real-life musician Sophie Kauer) that extends beyond appreciation for Olga's formidable potential, we can see the hurt in Sharon's eyes; yes, Sharon has looked the other way on a number of occasions, but this might be the moment when the levee breaks. At the same time, Lydia's pattern of allegedly exploiting her mentor-pupil position to prey on young women has reached the point where at least one life has been destroyed, and the media has picked up the story. Even as Tar delivers as an intellectually soaring, elaborately constructed and passionate tribute to the technical AND emotional joys of playing, conducting and appreciating beautiful music, it also becomes a knowing and timely #MeToo fable. 

The expansive supporting ensemble includes Mark Strong as a kind of Salieri to Lydia's Mozart; Noemie Merlant as Lydia's long-suffering assistant, who has sublimated her own ambitions in order to serve Lydia's every demand; and Allan Corduner as the assistant conductor who is one of many to experience Lydia's casually cruel treatment. They're all great and they all get their solo moments, but throughout the entirety of Tar, there's never any doubt Blanchett is the one holding the baton and everyone else is facing her, awaiting their cues.


Three and a half stars

STARS: Cate Blanchett, Adam Gopnik and Nina Hoss

DIRECTOR: Todd Field

RATED: R for some language and brief nudity