Cate Blanchett plays accomplished yet manipulative conductor Lydia Tár, because naming her Ava would have been too ridiculous. They should have called it Miss Conduct.
Despite its 15 rating for “sexually abusive behaviour”, Tár shows no such thing, hinting at impropriety without offering easy conclusions. The result is closer to Luce than Whiplash, the tension driven by its unreliable narrator, further complicated by social politics. Making the protagonist a woman (with an affection for the girls in her orchestra) puts an interesting twist on the #MeToo conversation, and Blanchett is perfect as the ill-tempered clavierist, somehow capable of completely disappearing into a character even with the most striking face in Hollywood.
Tár is long enough to hear Mahler’s 5th played twice, leaving plenty of space for riveting rehearsal sequences, musical intrigue and discussions of cancel culture. The heavily biographical opening serves as an overture to Tár’s titanic downfall and ironic resurrection, cleverly shedding its wordy veneer like she sheds accompanists. Discourse gives way to doubt as devilish detail creeps into Todd Field’s careful direction. The flipside of this poised, formal style is that straying even slightly from its realism creates whiplash, such as having the world-class conductor base her repertoire on whichever cellist she fancies fiddling, or attacking someone on stage.
At its best Tár is highly strung and thought-provoking, with visual and dramatic depth missing from Oscar rival Women Talking. It may lose votes from Academy members who think it’s Avatar, but you can baton Blanchett for Best Actress.