(Warning – Contains Spoilers)
Last night at the Phoenix, a much-loved arts venue which has had as many reincarnations as its name suggests, we went to see Tár.
If you haven’t heard of this, it’s a portrait of fictional orchestra conductor Lydia Tár starring Cate Blanchett. She’s a complex, unlikeable yet utterly stunning character, abusive yet humane and utterly devoted to her music. Yet she’s no cold caricature of a power-woman like, say, Emma Thompson in Late Night, good as that was; she loves her daughter deeply and goes out of her way to support her, she’s (generally) respectful to players in the orchestra – and yet she has a series of relationships with younger women who fall deeply in love with her and who she eventually dumps. One of these ends tragically and leads to her downfall.
She’s a complex character, and this is a complex film. Those who like simple narratives and clear morals will say that because she’s a powerful and abusive woman, this is anti-feminist – why not show her in a better light? Those who are anti-woke have seen a vindication of their views in one scene where Tár tears to pieces a young student who doesn’t listen to Bach because ‘cis white males’ are ‘not his thing’. Though she eviscerates the student in front of everyone, I think she’s absolutely right; surely we have to separate the man from the genius. I’m not in favour of toppling statues, just of giving more information about the people commemorated in them – and yet this is not a simple answer either, and that’s the point. In life there are no simple answers; we have to wrestle with things. Anything else, as Tár says, is trial by social media.
It’s a long film, nearly 2 3/4 hours, but I was gripped all the way through. The pace was slow and almost dreamlike despite some moments of high drama, but what I liked about it was that it was entirely different from the usual kind of Hollywood narrative. There are some puzzling non-sequiturs in the action, but these didn’t bother me as much as they bothered my friend; I just rolled with it. The scenes where she conducts are the best; I learned loads about orchestras and the role of a conductor and Tár herself is so magnificent, I could almost fall in love with her myself. Cate Blanchett is stunning and if she gets an Oscar it will be well-deserved. I’d go and watch it again tomorrow, and there are very few films of which I can say that.
The other film we saw recently was Empire of Light.
Again this was a stunning film with a female lead – Olivia Coleman – and again the pace was slow and dreamlike despite some moments of high drama. It centres on a cinema in Margate – the eponymous Empire – and was also filmed there: OH was quite distracted by knowing not only said cinema but also the man who ran it. I don’t think the manager in the film was based on Colin Crosby, however.
Coleman plays assistant manager Hilary in a classic Odeon-style cinema in the 70’s or early 80’s. We later discover that she has been in a mental hospital and been given a job in the cinema to help her rehabilitate. The cinema has a large and supportive staff and we get to know them all as the action progresses. Turns out the manager Donald, a married man played by Colin Firth, has a nice little number calling Hilary into his office whenever he needs a release (if you get my meaning) but things change when a new member of staff comes. Stephen, of Afro-Caribbean origin (this is only relevant later on when he’s the target of a racist attack) and Hilary strike up a rapport and eventually, in the gentlest way, fall into a relationship which is gentle, respectful and in every way the opposite of the sleazy knee-tremblers she endures in Donald’s office.
Even though the relationship doesn’t last it’s so refreshing not to see the typical Hollywood attraction between two people leading to them tearing their clothes off in the next scene. Hilary and Stephen do have a physical relationship but it’s so gentle and tender as they make love in a forgotten cinema screen in the attic, surrounded by pieces of abandoned scenery.
Toby Jones is also well worth watching (when isn’t he?) as the projectionist; this part, as well as the dreamy pace, reminded me of Cinema Paradiso.
This is another film I’d watch again, though I’d probably leave it a while. I think Tár, though, might make it into my top five all-time favourites, which are now (in no particular order)
La La Land
Withnail and I
A Knight’s Tale
Four Weddings and a Funeral