'Coda': Film Review

CODA - Publicity Still - H 2020
Clinamen Films
A music-stuffed drama whose writing doesn't live up to its cast.

Patrick Stewart plays a traumatized concert pianist in Claude Lalonde's directorial debut.

Patrick Stewart makes a predictably perfect concert pianist in Claude Lalonde's Coda: Stylish in a mildly attention-getting way, attentive to the world beyond his keyboard, able to tell convincing anecdotes about centuries-old composers. Sadly, the script for this debut feature, written by Louis Godbout, is less persuasive: No single event is fatally implausible, perhaps, but taken together it doesn't ring true. This story of the muse-like journalist (Katie Holmes) who eases the performer's anxieties will play well to some older viewers who are content with lovely scenery, pretty music and a star whose presence is welcome even when he's stooping to play Poop in a terrible animated film about emoji. But its insights into artistry are more grandiose than meaningful.

We begin with the kind of voiceover that leads one to guess a movie was based on a novel. (It wasn't.) But this would be a very middlebrow novel, always working to conjure the mystique of high art but demanding no comprehension on the reader's part. Our narrator, a New Yorker writer named Helen Morrison (Holmes), will, for example, say that Stewart's Henry Cole is "an existential pianist — he plays with his whole life." To which we can only respond, "Sure, if you say so." He's certainly sweating over that Steinway.

Henry's exertion isn't just musical passion, though. He hasn't performed in years when we see this first concert; after his wife's death, he became a recluse. He's questioned about this by a gaggle of reporters at a post-show press meetup; for some reason, Helen, a stranger, leaps in to answer a question on Henry's behalf.

Helen later speaks to Henry alone, informing him that 15 years ago, he gave her advice that spared her an unsuccessful music career of her own. She asks if she can write a profile of him, and he firmly rejects the idea. But after another presumptuous episode, in which Helen takes charge of an impromptu performance for a handful of spectators, he reconsiders. Soon the two are meeting all over town, building a rapport for the story.

Henry is convinced he's prone to sudden memory failures; that he'll freeze up onstage. He thinks this is the reason people come out to see music performed live: "It's the looming disaster that makes it special." (In a lifetime of concertgoing, I've never once seen an audience be anything but encouraging or respectfully silent in such a moment.) He's inclined not to go on with this comeback tour, but his manager Paul (Giancarlo Esposito) finesses and pleads with him. An upcoming London concert will be live-streamed online and seen by the world. "There's never been anything like it," he purrs; this claim, along with the assertion that the septuagenarian has a huge teenage fan base, is fairly hard to reconcile with the current realities of the classical-music marketplace.

But Henry keeps at it, especially when he realizes having Helen in the audience soothes his fears. She becomes part of his life, though the idea of romance is held at bay. Throughout the film, we see fragments of a journey in which a newly bearded Henry travels alone to the Alps looking forlorn; safe to say, then, that whatever relationship they have ends badly.

The generally handsome-looking pic would play quite a bit better if Helen didn't keep popping up on the soundtrack, making pronouncements about art and writing and life. The script's hunger for faux-deep metaphor reveals itself elsewhere, as in a chess game with a hotel clerk — "we never know what's coming, do we?" — and a little goes a long way. Better to fill that aural space with more Schumann and Scriabin, watch a sad man look at boulders and draw conclusions for ourselves.

Production company: Clinamen Films
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Katie Holmes, Giancarlo Esposito
Director: Claude Lalonde
Screenwriter: Louis Godbout
Producer: Nicolas Comeau
Director of photography: Guy Dufaux
Production designer: Camille Parent
Editor: Claude Palardy
Casting directors: Heidi Levitt, Francis Cantin, Bruno Rosato

97 minutes