DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang says that "Tar," which opens this week in theaters, is one of the most exciting new American movies he's seen this year. The movie won Cate Blanchett the best actress prize at the recent Venice International Film Festival for her performance as a famous classical conductor named Lydia Tar. It's the first film in 16 years from Todd Field, who previously wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated dramas "In The Bedroom" and "Little Children." Here is Justin's review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: By this point, we don't need any reminders of what a great actor Cate Blanchett is. But we have one anyway in her new movie "Tar." To play the fictional role of Lydia Tar, world-renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, Blanchett learned to conduct music, play the piano and speak German - not all at once, thankfully. Though, I'm sure she could if called upon to do so. A lot of movies about artists, even real-life artists, have a hard time convincing you of their character's accomplishments. But Blanchett makes you believe in Lydia's genius immediately, before we've even seen her pick up a baton.
The movie begins in Manhattan, with Lydia in a lengthy onstage conversation with The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik. This scene and others are a feast for classical music buffs. We learn about all the orchestras Lydia has conducted, the music she's composed, the films she's scored, the books she's written and the many awards she's won. We learn about her devotion to great composers like Mahler and great conductors like Leonard Bernstein. At this point in the conversation, she describes what conductors do and how they shape and manipulate the flow of time.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAR")
CATE BLANCHETT: (As Lydia) Time is the thing. Time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me. See, I start the clock. Now, my left hand, it shapes. But my right hand, the second hand, marks time and moves it forward. However, unlike a clock, sometimes my second hand stops, which means that time stops. Now, the illusion is that, like you, I'm responding to the orchestra in real-time...
ADAM GOPNIK: (As Adam) Right, right.
BLANCHETT: (As Lydia) Making the decision about the right moment to restart the thing or reset it or throw time out the window altogether. The reality is that right from the very beginning, I know precisely what time it is and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.
CHANG: The writer-director Todd Field has a masterful understanding of time himself. "Tar" runs more than 2 1/2 hours. But I found it mesmerizing, not just as a character study, but as a thoroughly persuasive portrait of the insular and competitive world where Lydia holds sway. While her work often brings her to New York - she teaches at Juilliard - she makes her home in Berlin with her partner, Sharon, an accomplished violinist played by the superb German actor Nina Hoss. They have a young daughter, though Lydia is too consumed with work to have much family time. Lydia isn't just a conductor at the podium. She treats everyone in her life as if they were a member of her own, personal orchestra to be manipulated at will. That goes for the wealthy investor, a terrifically oily Mark Strong, who's funding a conducting fellowship, and also her hard-working assistant, Francesca, who aspires to be a conductor herself.
Francesca, played in a cunning turn by Noemie Merlant, also keeps her boss' less savory secrets, some of them involving the many attractive, young female musicians Lydia has taken under her wing. That makes "Tar" a chilly study in the abuse of power, set in a classical music industry that has seen some of its biggest stars face accusations of sexual misconduct. Lydia may be the rare woman and the rare lesbian to have achieved global fame in a male-dominated profession. But she also enforces a certain status quo. She waves aside the idea that gender barriers have ever held her back.
And there's an extraordinary early scene at Juilliard where Lydia argues with a young student of color who scorns Bach, Beethoven and other white, male composers. Lydia rejects his wholesale dismissal of the Western canon and insists that identity politics should have no place in the evaluation of art. You can agree or disagree with her, but it's hard not to admire the intellectual brio with which she attacks her student's argument - all while playing the opening prelude of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" on the piano to boot. It's been a long 16 years since Field made a movie. And for at least some of that time, he's clearly been thinking about some of the most hotly debated social issues of the day.
But "Tar" is too subtly thoughtful and complex to be reduced to mere talking points. And Blanchett's performance also resists easy categorization. With her mix of charisma, ferocity and occasional tenderness, she shows us both Lydia Tar, the magnificent artist, and Lydia Tar, the monstrous human being, and makes it impossible for us to separate the two. Lydia is due for a comeuppance, and she gets it - or does she? A lot of people I've spoken to about "Tar" were thrown off by the ending, even those who love the movie as much as I do. I won't reveal that ending, except to say that it filled me with a fresh wave of admiration for Lydia, a consummate artist even at her lowest, and for the brilliantly thought-provoking movie that brought her to life.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Tar," starring Cate Blanchett. On Monday's FRESH AIR, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. She's been covering Donald Trump since the 1970s and '80s, when he was a rising real estate developer in New York City. Her new book is called "Confidence Man: The Making Of Donald Trump And The Breaking Of America." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GESTURE #2") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.