Tag: Allan Corduner

Tár (2022)

Tár (2022)

Character flaws abound in this intriguing and challenging film, open to multiple interpretations

Director: Todd Field

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Lydia Tár), Nina Hoss (Sharon Goodnow), Noémie Merlant (Francesca Lentini), Sophie Kauer (Olga Metkina), Julian Glover (Andris Davis), Allan Corduner (Sebastian Brix), Mark Strong (Eliot Kaplan), Sylvia Flote (Krista Taylor), Mila Bogojevic (Petra)

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s a maxim humanity manages to prove true, time and time again. It doesn’t matter what the field is, when someone holds sway over the dreams and ambitions of others, there’s a decent chance that power can be enjoyed so much it starts being abused. It’s an idea key to Todd Field’s gloriously complex and challenging Tár, a film that defies easy explanations and characterisations, both frighteningly in the “here and now” but also terrifyingly universal.

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is an internationally renowned conductor and composer. The first ever head of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, she lives a jet-setting life of international acclaim and fame, praised at every stop-off for her stunning reinventions of classical music. But dark shadows swirl around her. She plays favourites: and her favourites are always attractive young women, just starting their career, who see her as inspiration and mentor. And Tár? She sees advantages to this. It’s unspoken knowledge to all, from her partner first violin Sharon (Nina Hoss) to the other members of the Orchestra. But as the suffering of one of Tár’s spurned proteges threatens to leak out into the public domain, her empire topples just as she reaches the summit of her career.

Tár is a brilliantly insidious film, a quiet but compelling character study that borrows elements of Kubrickian unknowability. In particular, Field avoids making moral decisions for the audience, but trusts we are smart enough to come to our own conclusions. Effectively, we spend the film following a deeply flawed, Spacey-like figure, whose life falls apart without being invited to feel morally superior to her. It allows us to feel the pain of her meeting the consequences of her actions, but never lets us forget her own arrogance and cruelty caused them in the first place.

Tár is both an inspirational genius and a dyed-in-the-wool bully. She solves problems with the mindset of an aggressive alpha – her solution to her daughter being picked on by a classmate, is outbullying the bully (“I will get you” she tells her, assuring her no one will believe her because Tár “is a grown-up”). She treats her assistant (and possibly former lover) Francesca who tags behind her in the hope of a junior conductor role like a slave, brow-beats Orchestra members and fellow conductors with friendly pressure and views every relationship in terms of what she can get out of it.

As this deeply flawed human-being, Cate Blanchett is mesmeric. Tár is a firm reminder that she is, perhaps, the greatest actor in the world and all her range is on show here. Blanchett is imperious, assured and totally brilliant. She invests Tár with such – admittedly deeply flawed – humanity, we have to constantly pull ourselves up to remember she’s a dreadful person. Tár is arrogant, convinced of her own genius and sees no-one as her peer. She’s also inspirational, charismatic and oddly charming. Blanchett’s mixes tragedy, grief, denial, panic and bottomless bitterness as Tár’s carefully constructed life falls apart like a time-delay car crash that suddenly jumps back into normal time.

Carefully paced – it’s difficult not to reflect on Tár’s opening words at a career retrospective interview on the importance of timing to give each moment its precise impact – Tár never rushes, unless it needs to and slowly, but assuredly unfolds the final days of her empire. It’s like watching the Indian Summer of an Astro-Hungarian Emperor, barely aware that huge global forces are about to sweep everything away and rob her of her control of events. Field reflects this in the film’s assembly: earlier sequences are marked by their long takes – virtuso set-pieces for Blanchett – and tracking camera, that constantly centres Tár. Later sequences become shorter, choppier, narrative information becomes less clear – it’s like Tár has lost control of the film as much as she has her life.

Control is central, and Tár’s abuse of it her undoing. Her (unspoken but implied) predatory demands for sexual favours in return for career advancement are an open secret among colleagues. Field adds a threatening sense of Tár being watched – either recorded on a phone, or shots of the red-haired back of a mysterious woman at key moments. The woman is Krista, a former protégé, the exact nature of her fall-out with Tár unclear, but who Tár has black-balled in the classical music world. Even as the fallout from this threatens to consume her, Tár can’t help herself from attempting to groom a new cellist (Sophie Kauer), fixing a blind audition, favouring her in private workshops and bypassing the orchestra’s new cellist to land her a juicy lead.

It’s part of Field’s wonderful and searching analysis of the corruption of power – even as the house of cards totters, people can’t seem to see it. While being a universal parable, the film is also fiercely topical. Tár has clear parallels with figures like Spacey. Her ageing former mentor (a crisp Julian Glover) bemoans how the slightest mistaken word to someone can be misinterpreted as lecherous abuse. Attention has focused on the idea of this as a cancel culture movie. Tár, at a Juillard lecture, does strongly disagree with a young BIPOC composer, who can’t relate to cis-gender old white guys like Bach. Tár pushes the rather self-righteous young man to justify himself, which he attempts. But she also goes increasingly further and further, moving from persuasion to brow-beating (her natural resort as a bully) and thinly veiled mockery. She’s smart enough to deconstruct the contradictions in the young man’s views – but cruel enough to mock his bravery at standing up. But Field allows both sides legitimate points, something that you don’t nearly get enough of in our polarised world.

Field also tips Tár more and more into something unsettling and other worldly. Tár’s uniquely perceptive hearing means she is plagued with strange noises: a chiming echoing around her bolt-hole apartment (the reveal of what this is, is another reminder of her indifference to other people), a screaming heard while out running, a metronome that wakes her at night. Strange daydreams, with ghostly, vampiric presences fill her mind. Late, she enters a damp-soaked abandoned building which feels like the gateway to some Lynchian parallel universe, guarded by a Tarkovsky-like dog who might as well be the gatekeeper to her nightmares. Much of the final act of the film unspools like a wild, terrible dream, where key events may not even be real. Reality crumbles, just as Tár’s control over her personal and professional life disintegrates.

Through it all we are invited by Field to empathise, but not sympathise, with this demanding and domineering woman. To understand her, but not forgive her, to dislike her but not tar and feather her. A lesser film would have done the moral work for us. Nothing is explicit about Tár’s cruelty, but the tears of her assistant (a superbly fragile Noémie Merlant) and the tight-lipped frustration of Sharon (Nina Hoss is terrifically pained and long-suffering in a difficult role) speak volumes. But yet, it’s hard not to feel something for someone as their life falls apart, no matter how earned the fall might be. Blanchett uses all her skills to make Tár someone who is frequently awful but never a bogeyman, is categorically in the wrong, but still a figure of hubristic tragedy.

Blanchett is earth-shatteringly good in the lead role and Field’s direction is subtle, balanced and plays just enough with your perceptions. Perhaps some of what we see takes place in Tár’s nightmares, perhaps we only see certain characters from Tár’s biased perceptions. It could even be a fabulous ghost story with past misdeeds haunting the frame, a deconstruction of our willingness to pull down the flawed, a study of the abuse of power – or all three and more. The fact you will debate it for weeks to come, means it’s definitely a great film.

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Allan Corduner and Jim Broadbent excel as the Gilbert and Sullivan’s in Mike Leigh’s superb Topsy-Turvy

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (WS Gilbert), Allan Corduner (Sir Arthur Sullivan), Lesley Manville (Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert), Ron Cook (Richard D’Oyly Carte), Eleanor David (Fanny Ronalds), Wendy Nottingham (Helen Lenoir), Timothy Spall (Richard Temple), Vincent Franklin (Rutland Barrington), Martin Savage (George Grossmith), Dorothy Atkinson (Jessie Bond), Shirley Henderson (Leonara Braham), Kevin McKidd (Durward Lely), Louise Gold (Rosina Brandham), Andy Serkis (John D’Auborn), Dexter Fletcher (Louis), Sam Kelly (Richard Barker)

It seems an odd-fit: Mike Leigh, auteur of working class drama, prestige period films and the music of the middle-class in Gilbert and Sullivan. But that’s to forget Gilbert and Sullivan were among the masters of theatre – and Leigh himself is a theatrical great. Topsy-Turvy, from seeing the most uncharacteristic of the director’s works, in fact perhaps an examination of the creative process Leigh has made his life. It’s a wonderfully made, superbly executed tribute to the struggles and rewards of artistic creation. A celebration of how disparate personalities come together to create something bigger than themselves. Affectionate, heartfelt, at times quietly moving, Topsy-Turvy is both one of Leigh’s most enjoyable films and one of his most tender.

It’s 1884 and the creative partnership between WS Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is at a turning point. With their latest, Princess Ida, hardly setting the box-office alight. Sullivan feels the partnership has gone stale – and also feels under pressure to turn his attention towards more ‘serious’ composing. Gilbert refuses to change his next libretto, which Sullivan feels is effectively more of the same. Things change though when Gilbert is intrigued by an exhibition of Japanese arts and crafts, quickly creating a new libretto: The Mikado. The two geniuses, finally in unison, work together to bring the production to the stage.

Topsy-Turvy is probably Leigh’s most purely entertaining film. For anyone who has ever been involved in theatre or the arts, you’ll certainly recognise more than a few moments in this film, which is practically Leigh’s love letter to the arts. Leigh’s aim was to pay tribute to the difficulties of creativity and the demand of having to constantly refresh and reinvent your work to stay relevant and fulfilled. He succeeded: few films have so beautifully captured the struggle, pain, satisfaction and joy of creation or the strange anti-climax artistic success can bring.

Most of the second half of the film is a fascinating look at every step required to bring a production to life. From casting and contract negotiations, to costume fittings, staging and work in the rehearsal room. We get a fascinating insight into the complex backstage politics and squabbles in this small world. From actors bitching about the management (always incompetent, regardless of the situation) to the delight and playfulness of rehearsals as different opportunities are explored, it’s a wonderfully true insight into the theatre. Matched with the intricate and extraordinary detail of the reconstruction of the original production – and you have an enthralling insight into theatre. It also very appropriate for Leigh, whose organic methods of creating a film through copious rehearsal and improvisation remains very similar to theatre.

Alongside this though, the film has plenty of sympathy for the cost of creative exertion. Many of the actors lead sad and even lonely lives. Shirley Henderson’s Leonara Braham struggles with drink, Martin Savage’s George Grossmith is a drug addict (the company is too polite to mention it, but he’s clearly struggling with withdrawal at the dress rehearsal), Dorothy Atkinson’s Jessie Bond has constant pains from an unhealed ulcer. WS Gilbert and his wife lead a chaste life, he as terrified of intimacy and connection as he is of watching first nights. Sullivan juggles health problems and a long-running, regular-abortion marked, affair with Fanny Ronalds with a lingering sense of shame at not having exploited his talents more fully. These are lives that come to life when doused with creation, for all the off-stage world reveals trouble and strife.

Much of the first half is a wonderfully judged contrast between the extraverted Sullivan, keen to stretch himself but lacking the application and drive, and the repressed Gilbert, doggedly ploughing on with his (stale-sounding) original idea and unable to comprehend Sullivan’s reluctance. Leigh’s film could easily have manifested itself as a clash between two mis-matched partners. However, while the film expertly draws the parallels between the two, it also shows how much their energy comes from mutual respect. Sullivan is, after all, right that Gilbert’s first idea is a limp retread. But Gilbert’s Mikado idea is so good we don’t need a scene showing Sullivan change his mind – the simple contrast of Sullivan’s chuckles and animated striding while Gilbert reads him The Mikado’s libretto with his boredom and constant questions to the abandoned libretto speaks volumes.

Jim Broadbent is outstanding as Gilbert. He has the repressed distance, the grumpy-old-man bluntness but he mixes it with small flashes of excitement and rapture that speak volumes. His fascinated glances at the Japanese exhibition – soaking up inspiration – are beautifully judged, while his later excited larking around with a samurai sword (the very next scene sees him with a first draft) is perfect. Broadbent is both supremely funny, with several perfectly judged mon-bots, and also heartbreakingly, unknowingly lonely in his distance and fear of emotional contact. Allan Corduner makes a perfect contrast as the brash Sullivan, enjoying fame in a way Gilbert never can, but sharing with him a tortured sense of his need to fulfil his artistic potential.

The rest of the cast – a delightful mix of Leigh regulars and familiar faces – are also fabulous. Lesley Manville is wonderful as Gilbert’s wife, a gentle, eager-to-please woman who we discover has carefully buried deep regret about her emotionally repressed marriage and lack of children (Gilbert’s own difficult relationships with his parents have had a long reach on his life). Timothy Spall is wonderfully entertaining as bitchy leading actor who reacts with quiet despair when his big number is cut. Shirley Henderson’s fragility is perfect for a woman whose stage presence masks her emotional vulnerability and drink dependence. Dorothy Atkinson and Martin Savage are marvellous as two actors whose willingness to carry on under all conditions is skilfully contrasted.

Leigh’s film is also a brilliant reconstruction of time and era (rarely can a researcher be so highly billed on a film’s credits). There is a delight taken in showing how the characters react to new inventions, from Gilbert’s bellowing phone calls (“I am hanging up the phone now!”) to Sullivan’s wonder at a fountain pen (“What will they think of next?”). The design from Eve Stewart, the glorious photography of Dick Pope and the Oscar-winning costumes Lindy Hemming all are perfectly judged. The film though never becomes buried in “prestige costume drama” trappings: it’s eye for history is to acute. From alcoholism to drug addiction, broken families to the seamier streets of London, this is a film that never succumbs to easy nostalgia.

What it remains is a loving tribute to the strange families the build up around theatre. When Temple’s song is cut from the play, the chorus come together humbly but selflessly to beg for the song to be retained, because of their affection and regard for Temple. There may be disagreements, but everyone pulls together to stage the show when the time comes. Leigh’s film is full of wit, affection and a deep, loving regard for those who have chosen a life of creativity. While the film can show the cost of such a life – and the contrasting emptiness and regret away from the stage, in a life which can doesn’t always provide satisfaction – it also celebrates art in a way few other films can. One of the greatest films about the theatre ever made.

Disobedience (2017)

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams deal with love and faith in Disobedience

Director: Sebastian Lelio

Cast: Rachel Weisz (Ronit Krushka), Rachel McAdams (Esti Kuperman), Alessandro Nivola (Dovid Kuperman), Allan Corduner (Moshe Hartog), Bernice Stegers (Fruma Hartog), Anton Lesser (Rav Krushka), Nicholas Woodeson (Rabbi Goldfarb), Liza Sadoby (Rebbetzin Goldfarb)

After the death of her father, a highly respected member of a Jewish Orthodox community in London, photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York for his funeral. Estranged from her father, due to her rejection of Orthodoxy, Ronit has been quietly forgotten by her community. She stays with old childhood friends, now married, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) Kuperman. Dovid, her father’s chosen disciple, has been offered his place in the synagogue. Esti is a teacher at the local primary school. However, Ronit and Esti are more than just friends – their love for each other being the unspoken reason for Ronit’s departure.

Disobedience is a tender, thought-provoking exploration of the struggles between faith and love – or rather the longing to be a part of a community, that rejects a big part of who you are. While Ronit is our entry point into this world, the real tragedy here is Esti. Both a believer in Jewish Orthodoxy and a lesbian, Esti has struggled her whole life to find a balance between these two. While Ronit has, to a certain extent, chosen – deciding to leave her family life behind to allow some personal freedom for her bisexuality – Esti has remained and tried to reconcile the contradictions in her life.

What works really well about Disobedience is that it avoids moral judgements. The Orthodox community is never condemned or hold up backward or wicked. Those who live in it may be traditional, but they are not cruel. Ronit felt she had to leave, and there is an awkwardness around her return (and she is not mentioned in her father’s obituary), but apart from a few individuals, the community acknowledges her. This proves especially effectively as it allows the film to focus on a very tenderly drawn love-and-relationship triangle between the three leads, rather than scoring easier political or religious points.

It becomes a beautifully acted depiction of a three close childhood friends who are torn between affection, bitterness and longing for each other. In particular, the love between Ronit and Esti is immediately apparent, but also the tensions of confusion, missed opportunities and confused messages. These are two women deeply in love, but held apart by pressures of their community and conflicts in themselves. Between them falls Dovid, the loyal scholar of Orthodoxy, desperate to make his marriage to Esti work but also feeling a genuine affection to his adopted sister Ronit.

There is no easy answers to this mess – and the film looks carefully at questions of freedom, choice and free will. How can you reconcile your faith and the pressures of your community with the things you want in your heart? How do you compress the guilt when you feel you are forcing choices onto someone you love? How willing are we to sacrifice everything we have grown up with to make our own choices? You’d expect the answers to come down on the obvious sides, but instead Disobedience frequently operates in shades of grey and complex, messy realities. Its endings are open, its conclusions emotionally strong but not clear-cut. It reflects the ambiguity of life in its refusal to supply simple, reassuring endings.

The film is directed, in a muted palette, with great sensitivity and restraint by Sebastian Leilo. The camera has a wonderful eye for passing moments, for suppressed looks of affection. He uses long takes to allow his actors to relax into their performances, helping them create characters who feel extremely natural. The moment when Esti and Ronit finally surrender to their feelings to each other is shot with an urgency and intimacy – which then makes the restraint of much of the rest of the film all the more striking, as reality returns.

He also constantly surprises us, skilfully shifting perceptions from character to character. At first we feel that this is the story of the rebellious Ronit, but as the story progresses Esti emerges as a truly tragic figure, while Dovid is a man holding back huge waves of doubt and uncertainty about the rules that have defined his life.

The three lead actors are wonderful. Weisz is edgy, cagey and unapologetic about the air of rebelliousness she outwardly displays – but its clear that underneath she is full of regret, grief and a powerful sense of loss about the family and love she left behind. McAdams grows in statue from scene to scene as a woman who seems naïve but actually is all-too-aware of the compromises life demands – and has struggled all her life with sexual feelings alien to her culture. Nivola superbly turns a character who could have been an obstructive bore into a man who knows suffering deep down with the knowledge that his functional marriage based on duty will never bring him (or Esti) the happiness he desires.

Disobedience balances these three characters wonderfully. At times it luxuriates too much in its languid pace and stolen, lingering glances – a sense of urgency is often missing. But intelligent, sensitive, respectful and with a respect for faith that many other films would have avoided, it’s brilliantly played and sensitively directed.