Review | CODA: Life With Music – Beautiful Music, Inconsistent Acting

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

This review contains spoilers.

Thunderous applause greets a pianist as he takes the stage. The audience is thrilled to see this world-renowned musician perform again after his unexplained hiatus. He is a hero to many.

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But he is also just a man. He falters during his performance, paralyzed by fear and loneliness, and as concern murmurs throughout the concert hall, he begins to believe his performing days are numbered.

Sir Patrick Stewart wonderfully portrays pianist Henry Cole’s internal conflict in CODA: Life With Music. Of the three main actors, Stewart is the most nuanced in his delivery of dialogue. The weight of his voice and the heaviness of his silences portray Henry as wise and humble, but also insecure and emotionally exhausted after the tragic suicide of his wife/muse. Stewart reinforces the tension or intimacy of many scenes through his subtle facial expressions, but he can also generate a casual tone when needed through exaggerated movement.

YouTube trailer for CODA: Life With Music

The one hitch in his acting is his tendency to look at the camera during long, single-take shots. His occasional eye contact with the viewer breaks the fourth wall in a way that doesn’t feel intentional or thematically appropriate.

Katie Holmes has the opposite acting proficiencies and faults. She plays Helen Morrison, who is both the film’s narrator and a pianist/music critic writing a feature-length story about the legendary musician. Holmes’s movements and facial expressions convey many conflicting emotions: Helen wants to keep a neutral, albeit friendly relationship with Henry to maintain her high journalistic standards, but she can’t help falling in love with him. Holmes gives the character a certain gentleness that compliments Henry’s stoicism.

It is in Holmes’s voice acting where her performance begins to falter. She tends to speak to Henry with too much enthusiasm and friendliness, as though she is patronizing the pianist rather than urging him to open up about his tragic loss. Her voice-over lines, however, are spoken confidently and naturally.

Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the role of Paul, Henry’s caring but pushy manager, is perhaps the weakest part of the film. Esposito’s limited screen-time and his line delivery make him feel uninterested in the role: for example, his concern for Henry’s wellbeing feels fake in the first act, to the point where it feels like Paul is going to become the film’s antagonist. Esposito has good moments in CODA, but they’re few and far between.

Giancarlo Esposito (left) as Paul and Sir Patrick Stewart (right) as Henry Cole (screenshot from CODA: Life With Music)

Beyond the actors’ performances, there are several odd special effects or sounds. The CGI gorilla feels out of place and cheap, likely because it was unclear that Henry and Helen are in a zoo until the gorilla is on screen. The heartbeat and metronome sounds also feel cheap: their on-the-nose attempts at increasing tension during silent scenes prevent viewers from thinking for themselves.

Speaking of forced tension, Helen and Henry kissing at the end of the second act is a strange, tone-defiant decision. Age-gap aside, their relationship was never built up as a physical one, but as one of shared interests and creative desires; they were important to each other as muses, the nuanced implications of which are narratively satisfying until they kiss. The writers undermine the significance of their relationship by attempting to play up the tragedy of Helen’s death.

Holmes’s character is otherwise treated with grace. Blinded by the setting sun, the music critic drives her car over the crest of a hill and into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The screen fades to white before anything happens, but it is implied that she dies in the collision. All the while, the narrator discusses Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence: if a person were to relive the same life eternally, they would either despise the infinite pain, or they would happily suffer knowing they also get to re-experience the greatest moments of their existence. The narrator suggests that the philosophical concept is about learning to love life enough to accept such a repetition, which sets Henry up for a journey of self-discovery given his repeated loss. The viewer could have understood this without the narrator’s input, but the voice-over doesn’t reduce the emotional impact of the story.

Katie Holmes as Helen Morrison (screenshot from CODA: Life With Music)

Stewart beautifully captures Henry’s grief and eventual acceptance in the final act. The film jumps between small, intimate scenes of the pianist contemplating his life and grand scenes of him traversing sprawling landscapes, cut together in a way that makes the viewer feel just as lost and aimless as Henry. Stewart barely talks after Helen’s death, but his expressive body language steals the show. The few times he does speak, he converses with Felix the night guard (played by Christoph Gauler) for some of the most emotionally resonant scenes of the film. Henry finding peace is paced perfectly – his decision to continue his concert tour feels deserved and satisfying.

CODA also lives up to its musical expectations with a magical solo piano score performed by Serhiy Salov. The film features a deeply emotional collection of works by Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt and Scarlatti, played at just the right intensity and neither too seriously nor too casually, which allows the piano to masterfully compliment the tone of the film.

The narrative and artistic choices in CODA: Life With Music are often at odds with each other, but the film is worth seeing if you like classical piano or Stewart.

6.5/10

Visit the Filmoption International website for screening locations and times.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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