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Tár review – a stratospheric star vehicle for Cate Blanchett

The actress gives one of her greatest performances in Todd Field's spiky story of a celebrated composer whose life begins to unravel

You don’t want to get on the bad side of Lydia Tár. She may entice you in with a wolfish smile – flirty eyes that make you blush, lulling you into a false sense of security. But don’t tweak the tail of Lydia, also known as Linda, or Maestro, or Dad, or bitch, depending who you ask. With a practised flick of her conductor’s baton, she can tear you down with a cutting rebuttal as steely as her expertly pressed grey suits.

Todd Field’s Tár is a searing star vehicle for Cate Blanchett, gifting the actor with a fascinating, thorny character to bloodily untwine across an airy 158-minute runtime. She plays a mythical conducting genius, who has achieved the EGOT and has spent several stints at celebrated philharmonic orchestras worldwide, now settled in Berlin with her long-suffering partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their adopted daughter Petra. Other members of her entourage include personal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), who is equal parts resentful of and in love with her type-A boss; elsewhere, a series of pretty young things catch Tár’s eye, testing her professional boundaries with increasingly wobbly reserve.

Field packs a lot into the long runtime, with no scene wasted in building Tár up so high until the house of cards threatens to topple over. There are several moments that make you want to stand up and joyfully exclaim “kino!” – particularly in Blanchett’s high-camp freak outs, acerbic monologues and impassioned conducting scenes. There’s little subtext to be found, though, and there are moments where you wish he’d reined it in a little. Do people really run out of buildings to throw up when they’re shocked? Would you really punch someone in the face in front of a crowd of gowned dignitaries? Tár works it best when it’s a little reserved, a little cerebral, bypassing the low-hanging fruit.

Particularly, its exploration of Tár as a flawed hero who is so sure of her perhaps outdated opinions and who continually crosses the line with her impressionable students – courting their affection in exchange for preferential treatment – is done well, a rare film that dips its toe into the shark-infested waters of identity politics in a way that acknowledges its grey-shaded complexity. But this is not merely the Blanchett show, either: graceful, shrewd supporting roles from veteran Julian Glover to newcomer Sophie Kauer all contribute to the film’s carefully calibrated sense of style, a film that feels rooted and real despite the magnitude of the character and star at its centre.

Tár, ultimately, is about the extent to which we cling to old styles and cave in to new rules: about taking responsibility for one’s actions when in a position of power, and how to find meaning in your life and work when you’ve already shattered the glass ceiling and risen into the blinding sun. Amid absorbing cinematography and a wholly original, frequently slippery and always fascinating screenplay, this is work of real, admirable heft.

Tár was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 13 January 2023.

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