“Minimal prying, I promise.” – Music writer pitching a famed pianist to interview him for a profile piece.
Careful! If a journalist promises you an interview will involve “minimal prying,” expect considerable prying.
The regal Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast and delivers strong, carved-from-Shakespeare work as Sir Henry Cole, a legendary pianist battling stage fright late in his career in the somber and intellectual and quite lovely “Coda,” which has the subtle pacing and existential angst of a 1970s Scandinavian drama.
Katie Holmes — who knows a thing or two about being on the other side of intrusive media — is equally effective as Helen, a music journalist and lifelong fan of Henry’s who is determined to write the definitive piece about the great artist who has returned to the concert stage for the first time in years and is almost immediately regretting the decision.
At times you’ll feel as if you’re being metaphor’d to within an inch of your life. When the characters talk about flowers or a thousand-year-old rock or a magnificent gorilla in the Bronx Zoo, they’re never really talking about flowers or a rock or that big gorilla.
Even when the talk turns to baseball, the dialogue has a certain lofty lilt.
“Do you know the name of this team,” Henry says to a visitor as he watches a game on television. “They’re called … ‘the Orioles.’ I love that name.”
But “Coda” is a great-looking film, filled with dagger-sharp dialogue, wonderful performances and, as you’d expect, a wondrous and heavenly score, courtesy of Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert.
Stewart’s Henry Cole has embarked on a tour of the United States, with his loyal (if somewhat tone-deaf, so to speak) agent Paul (Giancarlo Esposito) pushing Henry every step of the way, downplaying Henry’s stage fright and courting press attention. (Henry’s journey eventually takes him to Switzerland and expands the visual scope to include some breathtakingly beautiful cinematography.)
“It’s just music, it’s not the Ten Commandments,” Paul says to Henry backstage after Henry says he’s not going back out there for the second half of a recital.
Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Paul. To Henry, these compositions ARE the Ten Commandments, and if he can’t honor them as he once did, he’s not sure he should try at all.
Holmes’ Helen, who dresses like Jackie Kennedy circa 1962 and had some talent of her own as a young pianist, is a writer for the New Yorker who shadows Henry from city to city, gradually gaining his trust and demonstrating a key journalistic skill — the ability to know when to sit back, shut up and LISTEN — as Henry waxes rhapsodic about such joys as being young and in love in Prague in the springtime.
As much as Henry comes to appreciate Helen’s interest and her shared passion for classical music, he becomes increasingly ill at ease about performing. He takes up smoking. He has to remind himself to take a breath when’s performing.
It’s Helen, of all people, who becomes a source of strength and comfort and encouragement to Henry. He literally won’t go onstage unless she’s there.
Helen came to study him and write about Henry — yes, she records most of their conversations, for after all, that’s why she’s here — but she also turns into a kind of muse/safety net.
Eventually, though, as much as Henry has come to lean on Helen, there are certain steps and certain late chapters in his story he must write on his own.