Film Review ***..: Late Beethoven Music Showcased in New Movie
Ed Harris Delivers Brilliant Performance as Beethoven
By Bogdan Fedeles
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Written by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson
Starring Ed Harris, Diane Kruger
Opens Nov. 10
“Copying Beethoven,” the latest feature about Beethoven, has met with some ambivalent reviews, with criticism focusing on historical inaccuracies or anachronisms that have nothing to do with the message of the movie. Personally I found it to be bold, deeply inspiring, and truly marvelous.
The movie presents a fictionalized account of Beethoven’s final years, focusing less on historically accurate details and more on the significance of Beethoven’s late music. While the circumstances surrounding the composition of each work are all imaginary (as well as many characters), the movie portrays a very convincing version of the reality in which Beethoven could in fact have written his late masterpieces. The movie is a fantasy and although perhaps a little too heavily inspired by “Amadeus” — the famous fictionalized motion picture about Mozart — it does bring enough new elements and solid acting to stand on its own.
The premise of the plot is simple. In 1824, Beethoven (Ed Harris) is rushing to finish his Ninth Symphony. As a lot of transcription work still needs to be done, a copyist is needed. Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), a composition student studying in Vienna is recommended and starts working with Beethoven. Anna secretly hopes not only to help with copying but also to learn from the master about composing. An unconventional relationship eventually develops between the protagonists, and this becomes the environment in which Beethoven writes his final string quartets and the Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue).
The simplicity of the plot is intentional and welcome as it allows the audience to focus on the soundtrack of the movie — an all-Beethoven selection featuring most of his late works. Director Agnieszka Holland does an amazing job of fitting the right kind of music to each scene, while preserving the original character, instrumentation and tempo of each piece. This is remarkable because none of the musical excerpts are adapted; they are presented in their original versions. Another intelligent choice was the limitation of the number of pieces to a select few of his later works. Fitting all of Beeethoven’s works into this movie made no sense. Therefore, expect no Eroica or Fifth Symphony excerpts here.
The choice of recordings used for the movie is first class, namely the string quartet selections performed by the world famous Takacs Quartet.
“Copying Beethoven” benefits from some brilliant acting. Ed Harris delivers a superb performance as Ludwig himself, full of passion, expressiveness and humor. Harris is known for preparing very carefully for each of his roles, but this time he outdid himself. In this movie, all of his gestures were convincing — especially when dealing with skills that are hard to simulate such as playing piano and violin or conducting an orchestra. Harris’s natural and engaging acting is delightful, especially when portraying Beethoven’s musical prowess, corny humor, and uncontrolled rage.
Opposite Harris, Diane Kruger portrays the young composition student Anna Holtz. Given the fictional nature of her character, Kruger has a more difficult time convincing the audience of her authenticity, but she nevertheless succeeds. The ability to convey both awe in the face of Beethoven’s genius and the temerity to stand up to the composer when his attitude becomes selfish and rude, make Kruger’s performance solid and a fitting opposite to Harris’s acting.
The directing of the movie is also inspired. Director Agnieszka Holland did not limit herself to merely telling a story about a great composer, but also tried to convey more about the meaning behind the music. The movie depicts and augments Beethoven’s music with ingenious cinematography, as exemplified by the scene with the Grosse Fuge and the Ninth Symphony performance.
Holland is also passionate about the educational quality of the movie; not only is the movie a special tribute to Beethoven’s latest works, but most of Beethoven’s lines contain quotes from Beethoven’s own Heiligenstadt Testament, written in 1801 when he realized the onset of his deafness and was contemplating suicide. In it, he expresses his views about the role of the artist in society, the meaning of music and its connection with the divinity. Of course, it is unclear whether Beethoven himself would have spoken like that, but hearing explicitly his musing and philosophy about life, art and religion does give us a much better understanding of what Beethoven stood for and how we should approach his music.
While not perfect, “Copying Beethoven” is a remarkable movie that will delight general audiences as well as trained musicians. The brilliant acting and inspired directing will seduce you long enough for Beethoven’s enthralling music to leave an unforgettable impression on your hearts and minds. Go and watch this movie as soon as it comes out!