A hurt but still idealistic young woman meets a bleeding, fading late-career writer/singer/artist (yes, even the horrid, oxymoronic LinkedIn nomenclature "creative") and the two learn how to make sense of their wounds together " we've seen this movie, right? Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta in A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004), Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (2009), to a lesser degree, even Begin Again (2013), although the age gap wasn't quite as pronounced with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Did we really need another movie that pushes the inherently sexist idea of a 'muse'?
Luckily, Coda (available on BookMyShow Stream now), starring Patrick Stewart, Katie Holmes and Giancarlo Esposito, refuses to rehash the well-worn tropes of this 'May-December' subgenre, swapping it out for an almost Bergman-like contemplativeness. This would be a wordy film even in 60s Europe, let alone contemporary Hollywood " but the dialogue, the performances and the sheer sincerity of the story make Coda a winner.
Stewart plays Sir Henry Cole, a world-famous concert pianist who's having panic attacks onstage since his wife died. Holmes plays Helen Morrison, a New Yorker reporter who may or may not have been recruited by Cole's agent Paul (Esposito) to help the old man recover his confidence. At any rate, after Helen helps Henry finish a concert by playing with him (she used to be a serious trainee pianist), the two start to spend more time together. She promises "minimal prying" as she interviews him for an article. He, practically a recluse at this point, resists her attempts to bring up the past at first ("There is a lot to be said about staying on the surface of things"), but soon opens up about the nature of his art, his life and what drives him to still perform at his age, that too after suffering a tragic loss.
It's these interview segments that form the backbone of this script. Stewart is masterful while holding forth on the uniqueness of being a concert pianist. When Helen tells Cole that her friend, who's also a pianist, is "unique and special", he corrects her gently but with a bit of mischief thrown in. He tells her that pianists shouldn't be too idiosyncratic, lest they take the attention away from the music itself: "Being unique is a desirable attribute in stamps or landscapes. In a pianist it usually spells trouble. A pianist's personal duty is in the realm of small differences."
Similarly impressive is the scene where Cole is talking about his teenage years " a blur of crippling self-doubt at night and practices every waking hour"with a weary nostalgia that any professional musician will be familiar with. "German composers are good company. I couldn't have survived my teenage years without Schumann. I depended upon him. I felt he understood me better than anyone else."
Pop culture, including and especially Hollywood, is guilty of making a fetish out of grief and pain among artists " the 'tormented genius' is a clearly harmful trope that somehow, creators cannot seem to let go of.
Because of this, complex stories like Coda shine even brighter by comparison. Stewart is fantastic, in particular, at bringing out Henry Cole's sense of artistic pride " which is hurt because of his recent near-failures, but also still sharp enough to decide that if he can't do justice to the masterpieces he's playing onstage, the only ethical thing to do (according to him anyway) is to stop trying.
Holmes, too, turns in a mature and thoughtful performance as the ex-Julliard prodigy who now writes about people whose success she once aspired to match. It's a tricky role by any standards, but she vanishes into it with expertly calibrated intensity. This is easily her best outing since Touched With Fire (2015), where she played a bipolar poet. She has clearly thought through the intersection of art with grief, trauma and mental illness " and how to portray the same without devolving into a series of 'tortured genius' clichÃ©s.
In my favourite bit of dialogue from Coda, Helen is thinking about her fear of flying. She compares it to Cole' stage fright in a brutal, minimalist dialogue; it's like something out of a Joan Didion book. She says: "On the flight over I sat by the window, brooding as usual over the wiring, the hydraulics and all those sheets of metal stitched together, thinking that flying requires a continuous miracle. But flying is what a plane does, of course. The real miracle is that I am able to torment myself like this."
Coda isn't a masterpiece, merely a very good film. But as Henry Cole and Helen Morrison realize through the 90-minute runtime, the audacity to pursue masterpieces is in some ways, more of a 'miracle' than the end product.
Coda is available on BookMyShow Stream
Watch the trailer here