“Do we actually need another recording of the Goldberg Variations?” The question, at once impudently cheeky and playfully taunting, is posed in “Coda” by the long-time manager and friend of a world-famous classical pianist during an intimate outdoor lunch with, among others, his bemused client. Ironically, a similar question could be asked about the movie itself: Do we really need another drama about an aged artist who’s reinvigorated, professionally and personally, by a free-spirited and much younger woman?
Maybe. It helps a lot if the drama is as low-key and credible as “Coda,” a deliberately paced and stealthily involving saunter through familiar territory. And it helps even more if the lead performances are as subtly affecting as those offered here by Patrick Stewart as Henry Cole, a celebrated musician who finds himself increasingly stressed by stage fright late in his decades-long career, and Katie Holmes as Helen Morrison, a thirtysomething (or thereabouts) writer for The New Yorker who wants to profile Cole as he warily launches his first concert tour in years.
Early on, when she approaches him backstage after a Manhattan performance, Helen reveals that her own musical ambitions ended abruptly during her youth after she crashed and burned at a piano competition. “I lacked the basic talent of not shaking,” she tells Henry, simultaneously piquing his interest and arousing our skepticism. Is she telling the truth, or trying to win over a reluctant interview subject, or both? It almost doesn’t matter: Henry winds up politely but firmly rejecting her request to question him.
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Later, though, he’s immobilized by a panic attack while performing in a Steinway store — and Helen saves him from public humiliation by joining him at the keyboard for a dual rendition of the “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen.” After that, he can’t help lowering his guard.
Even then, though, Henry is loath to reveal too much about himself. “There is a lot to be said about staying on the surface of things,” he responds when she presses a tad too insistently. And, indeed, throughout the first half of “Coda,” director Claude Lalonde and scripter Louis Godbout suggest Henry might be right to hold his secrets tight. Here and there, they teasingly hint that Helen has been recruited by Henry’s manager (slyly played by Giancarlo Esposito) for an emotional rescue mission. More unsettlingly, they also raise the possibility that panic attacks could be the least of Henry’s problems.
The time-tripping structure of Godbout’s screenplay makes it all too easy to predict all too early how the narrative ultimately will conclude. Still, Godbout and Lalonde deftly avoid many of the other clichés common to movies that pivot on this sort of May-December relationship. Indeed, the film’s overall tact and discretion enhances the dramatic and emotional evolution of the bond between Henry and Helen, which is rendered with low-key sincerity by a scrupulously restrained Stewart and an arrestingly ambiguous Holmes.
(A clever, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it touch: When Helen quotes poetry from a collection by Henry, the pianist expresses surprise because the book has long been out of print. Not long afterward, we see her reading a book very clearly stamped with a secondhand bookstore price tag.)
But wait, there’s more: Classical aficionados will be mightily pleased by a soundtrack brimming with piano masterworks — ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Schumann — performed by Serhiy Salov, a Canadian-born pianist of Ukrainian extraction who briefly cameos on camera as a minor character identified in the closing credits as “Ukrainian Pianist.” It should be noted that, even when he’s fleetingly seen as well as heard, he doesn’t play a single note of the Goldberg Variations.