A talented yet cunning conductor orchestrates everyone around her in “Tr.”

Tr, starring Cate Blanchett as a well-known conductor, is available thanks to Focus Features remove caption
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In the movie Tr, Cate Blanchett plays a well-known conductor.

By permission of Focus Features We already know what a fantastic performer Cate Blanchett is, but her most recent film, Tr, serves as a reminder nonetheless. Thankfully, Blanchett did not learn to direct music, play the piano, and speak German all at once for the fictional role of Lydia Tr, the legendary conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, but I’m sure she could if necessary. Even real-life artists struggle to convince you of their characters’ talents in many films about the arts. However, Blanchett swiftly convinces you of Lydia’s brilliance before we even see her pick up a baton.

The film opens in Manhattan with Lydia and Adam Gopnik, a writer for the New Yorker, having a protracted on-stage conversation. It’s a feast for lovers of classical music to see this scene and others: We find out about all the orchestras Lydia has led, the music she has created, the movies she has scored, the books she has written, and the numerous accolades she has received. We also hear about her love for great musicians like Mahler and conductors like Leonard Bernstein, as well as her opinions on how conductors control and shape time.

Todd Field, a writer and director, has a profound awareness of time. Although Tr is longer than 2 1/2 hours, I found it to be engrossing not only as a character study but also as a powerfully convincing depiction of the exclusive and cutthroat society in which Lydia rules. While her job frequently requires her to travel to New York, where she teaches at Juilliard, Sharon, a talented violinist played by the excellent German actor Nina Hoss, lives with her in Berlin. Although Lydia is too preoccupied with work to spend much time with their small daughter, they do have one.

Lydia doesn’t just lead from the front; she views everyone in her life as a player in her own little orchestra who can be controlled at will. That goes for her diligent assistant Francesca, who hopes to become a conductor herself, as well as the wealthy investor, a terrifically oily Mark Strong, who is supporting a conducting fellowship. Nomie Merlant’s deft portrayal of Francesca also conceals some of her boss’ less savory secrets, some of which concern the numerous gorgeous young female musicians Lydia has taken under her wing. Given that some of the classical music industry’s brightest artists have been accused of sexual assault, Tr is a cold study of the abuse of power.

Although Lydia is a rare woman and a rare lesbian to have gained international acclaim in a field dominated by men, she nevertheless upholds a certain status quo. She dismisses the notion that gender stereotypes have ever limited her. A remarkable early scene at Juilliard also features Lydia arguing with a young student of color who despises Bach, Beethoven, and other composers who are white men. Lydia disagrees with his complete rejection of the Western canon and maintains that identity politics have no role in the assessment of art. Whether you agree with her or not, you can’t help but admire the cerebral aplomb with which she dissects her student’s position while while playing the first prelude of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” on the piano.

Field hasn’t produced a film in a long 16 years, but throughout at least some of that period, it’s obvious that he’s been considering some of the most contentious contemporary societal topics. Tr, however, defies simple categorization because it is too quietly intelligent and sophisticated to be reduced to talking points, and Blanchett’s acting does the same. It is impossible for us to distinguish between Lydia Tr the wonderful artist and Lydia Tr the horrific human being thanks to her magnetism, aggressiveness, and rare displays of tenderness.

Lydia deserved to be punished, and she is. Or does she? Even those who adore the film as much as I do were confused by the conclusion, according to many individuals I’ve spoken to about Tr. I won’t disclose what happened in the end, but I will say that it renewed my admiration for Lydia, who was an accomplished artist even at her lowest, and for the masterfully thought-provoking film that brought her to life.