As a disclaimer before we get into the meat of this review, I am no expert on classical music, having a rudimentary foundation in the genre and little more to go on. However, it doesn’t take an expert to recognise that the idea of Patrick Stewart as an ageing piano virtuoso feels like a natural fit, and Life With Music uses that as a foothold from which to attempt to craft a compelling narrative with mixed results.
Life With Music tells the story of acclaimed musician Henry Cole as he undertakes a final tour, culminating with a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. However, Cole begins suffering with performance anxiety and questioning his abilities, despite putting on flawless performances. But a meeting with Helen Morrison (Katie Holmes), a New York Times critic, leads to a burgeoning friendship that helps him to explore his issues as the big finale to his career approaches.
As you would expect, Stewart is phenomenal in this role as the troubled pianist. He brings a gravitas and emotional weight to proceedings that give a huge uplift to the film. Similarly to his recent performance in Picard, it’s the combination of fragility and experience that informs his portrayal of an ageing expert in his field, slowly succumbing to Father Time. It’s never explicitly stated, but reading between the lines there a certainly a suggestion that there is more ailing Cole than just anxiety, something that Stewart ingrains into his portrayal without overplaying it. It’s a great performance, if not one that relies on subtle notes rather than big choruses.
Across from him Holmes does very well, although in truth it’s not a role that required much in the way of a stretch from Holmes in terms of her range, she mostly acts a guiding hand to Cole, and the plot as a whole.
I mentioned previously the subtle element of Stewart’s performance, but in essence the whole film relies on a sense of the underlying and the subtle as the plot moves at a glacial, almost non-existent pace. The metaphors that appear as the film ruminates on the nature of death, both of life and career are pretty obvious (a zoomed in shot on a rock gathering moss seemed somewhat on the nose for my liking) but perhaps the slow, deliberate pace of the film is part of a wider allegory about the inevitable march towards death. However, it certainly felt at points as though the actual narrative could have used a few more story beats.
There was clearly an attempt to make a film that was moving, and understated with Life With Music, but it falls somewhat short of that target. The leads do extraordinarily well with the material (or lack thereof), and the emotional journey for Cole is affecting. However, a sub plot of some kind, or a fleshing out of the A narrative would have made this a slightly less one dimensional affair. That said, the music is beautiful throughout, and there is a sense of class and elegance to much of what happens that does lift this from simply being a one-note performance.