coda life with music patrick stewart katie holmes claude lalonde film montreal

Patrick Stewart shines in the Montreal-shot film Coda: Life With Music

Claude Lalonde’s film tackles the trials of aging and importance of music in our spiritual lives.

In the age of spectacle and streaming, one of the most neglected categories of films is the intimate drama. That’s why Coda — a sensitive drama based on an original screenplay about a pianist’s mental decline — stands out as exceptional in the current media landscape. Led by a subtle performance by Patrick Stewart, the movie explores a man going through a huge life change and how music and friendship keep him grounded. 

After a long absence, pianist Henry Cole (Stewart) returns to the stage. However, rather than enjoy the experience, he’s overcome with anxiety and stage fright. With his comeback tour hanging in the balance, he attempts to find his grounding, but a lot has changed in the years since he was last performing regularly; his wife died, and he has grown older. He develops a new friendship with a music journalist, Helen (Katie Holmes), and as they grow closer, his mental health deteriorates, and his music career suffers. 

Patrick Stewart’s performance as Cole is quiet, choosing small gestures over grand dramatics to translate his growing sense of fear. The filmmaking flatters his restraint through well-constructed images that underline anxiety and awe of his insignificance, such as a man overwhelmed by a large concert hall and engulfed by the majesty of nature. His suffering becomes a source of pain and transcendence, an opportunity to come to terms with his finite life. While Stewart continues to impress in franchise roles in Star Trek and X-Men, it’s humbling to see him tackle such a deeply felt performance he can create from scratch.

Stewart’s performance is complemented by a solid supporting cast, including Katie Holmes and Giancarlo Esposito. Holmes comes into her own as a failed pianist turned journalist who has a passion for music and the people who make it. Her warmth is effusive, and her talents as an actor have rarely been better utilized. Esposito (best known for his role as Gus in Breaking Bad) is a bit colder on the surface but no less embodied. It’s refreshing to watch a film where characters feel complex, living far beyond the film’s scope. Though the film centres in part on interpersonal relationships, it avoids predictable conflicts and circumvents many clichés often associated with dramatic screenplays. 

Coda has a lot of virtues, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. In many ways, it’s a minor film, one that captures, to a certain extent, poetic and relatable ideas without ever reaching greatness. As much as its timelessness is a virtue, it also feels a bit impersonal — as if the film lacks an appropriate closeness to the subject that might elevate it. The sound design and mise-en-scène are relatively strong, but the actual quality of the image leaves something to be desired; the film feels a bit “TV.” That likely won’t be too much concern for those who care about performances above nearly everything else. 

The themes touched on in Coda also reach many different audiences, but I also feel that the film will appeal primarily to an older crowd. So if you’re looking for something to watch with a parent and a grandparent, this might work well. It’s a movie that captures, with dignity and tenderness, the trials of growing older without being condescending. It’s a refreshing take that feels far different from more typical portrayals. While it’s one of the film’s strengths, the lack of apparent markers might also alienate audiences who have not thought much about what it might feel like to grow older and lose a part of their identity. In a media landscape that tries to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, it’s admirable that Coda sticks to its guns and privileges the dignity of its storytelling above nearly all else. 

Coda keeps things simple where and when it counts. It’s a movie featuring some beautiful and nuanced performances and captures the intensity and importance of music in our spiritual lives. Montrealers might also enjoy the many scenes shot in the city, especially Westmount Park, reworked as the Bronx Zoo. While it’s not about to change the game, it’s still a tender film made with much love. ■

Coda, directed by Claude Lalonde

To read our interview with Patrick Stewart, please see the June 2022 issue of our magazine here.

Coda: Life With Music opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 3.

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