Cate Blanchett conducts herself magnificently in a modern classical music drama

Cate Blanchett conducts herself magnificently in a modern classical music drama

A great orchestra conductor doesn’t just keep the violins from going one way and the trombones and tuba another, nor act as a human metronome who looks good in a tux. They stir musicians to great heights and unlock the sonic imagination of an enraptured audience.

In short, they rule. And on that note, Cate Blanchett soars in writer/director Todd Field’s drama “Tár” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in select theaters now, nationwide Friday). Powered by Blanchett’s baton-wielding tour de force, the film is a modern tale about a cultural giant who uses her power in not-so-great fashion, so there’s shades of #MeToo at play. However, “Tár” has more of a timeless quality, playing out in the style of a Greek tragedy with the epic downfall of a woman behaving badly.

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In the film’s classical music world, Lydia Tár (Blanchett) is like Ye and Taylor Swift combined: An EGOT winner who’s led a bunch of top orchestras around the world, and is the renowned conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, ready for her master stroke. She’s preparing to do a live recording of Gustav Mahler’s heavyweight fifth symphony while also releasing her memoir (with the oh-so-pretentious title “Tár on Tár”). From the opening moments, Field so impressively weaves Lydia’s storied career into real life that you need to stop yourself from Googling her. (While it does seem like a believe-it-or-not biopic, she is fictional.)

Her rise has been triumphant, but you know what they say about the way down. While Lydia’s close to her greatest heights, a former student ends her life and a legal team wants to chat with the celebrity conductor about allegations of sexual misconduct. She’s married to her concertmaster Sharon (Nina Hoss), although their relationship chafes when Lydia takes a special interest in Olga (Sophie Kauer), the orchestra’s new wunderkind cellist. And Lydia also needs to figure out who’ll be her new assistant conductor, the dream job for loyal personal aide Francesca (Noémie Merlant).

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Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, right) rehearses with her new cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), in “Tár.”

It’s a lot. Cracks are seen early in the enigmatic Lydia’s cool façade – the threatening way she deals with kid bullies at her adopted daughter’s school, for example, and how the self-described “U-Haul Lesbian” lays into a socially conscious student who disrespects Bach for being a misogynist. (She also causes a stir by suggesting men apply for her conducting fellowship for young women.) The pressure continues to mount, and Lydia’s personal and professional missteps threaten to tear down everything she’s meticulously built.

Even if you take out the timely “cancel culture” bent, “Tár” works as a really intriguing exploration of the mostly uncharted world of classical music, as “Black Swan” did for ballet and “Whiplash” for jazz. While the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle” offered a comedic take on backstage orchestral maneuvering, this film takes a much more introspective look at its politics and ultra-competitive nature. It’s the one aspect begging to be mined more in Field’s busy narrative, which already pushes limits with a taxing 158-minute runtime.

One big positive: The movie sounds fabulous, even if Lydia’s life is as discordant as a Charles Ives effort. Oscar-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (“Joker”) score doubles as themes of a composition Lydia’s toiled at for years, not to mention some Mahler and Edward Elgar works to please the classically minded set.

Blanchett, of course, is the real maestro here. Surrounded by a number of ambitious women in a world that’s historically patriarchal, Lydia is an astounding study of ego and hubris gone wrong in a period where devices track every questionable move.

A shoo-in for a best actress Oscar nomination (and an early favorite to win the darn thing), Blanchett plays piano, drives like a maniac and, yes, conducts an orchestra like a seasoned pro, though her biggest feat is molding a magnetic character out of an unknowable figure.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Tár’ review: Cate Blanchett wows as A-list conductor in musical drama

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