Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode, Ralph Riach, Joe Anderson, Phyllida Law
MPAA Rating: (for some sexual elements)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 11/10/06 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik
There's nothing new to learn about the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven in Copying Beethoven, a familiar biopic from director Agnieszka Holland. The movie doesn't find an interesting foothold until around its halfway point, and up until then, the script covers territory well laid by countless other movies involving famous geniuses, their eccentric ways, and a person who attempts to see through all of the foibles to find the human being within. Covering about the same timeframe of Beethoven's life as the far more sensationalist (and, hence, far more intriguing and entertaining) Immortal Beloved, the movie tells the story of the maestro's writing of his Ninth Symphony, its first performance, and the less-than-three years of his life after. While the opening half is pretty much a perfunctory examination of frenzied genius and telling of recognizable events, once the bravura presentation of The Ninth is complete, the movie starts to touch upon ideas about art and the artist's role in society and the universe. Certainly more than a bit cloying and self-important, these scenes do allow the central characters to open up, apart from the necessary movements of the biopic, and appear as thinking human beings.
As the movie opens, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), a young student and practicing copyist, is on her way to Beethoven's (Ed Harris) deathbed. There's always something trivial about opening on a character's death; it forces audience sympathy on characters they have yet to meet, let alone know anything about. Either way, the movie shifts back a few years to 1824 in Vienna, where Anna has arrived at the request of Beethoven's publisher Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach).. Schlemmer is dying of cancer and can no longer take the maestro's violent outbursts when something in the music is copied incorrectly, so he has asked the school to send its most promising student to copy Beethoven's work. Shocked that a girl has been sent but subdued by another beating from the maestro (Anna watches from the side), Schlemmer sends Holtz off to transcribe Beethoven's latest pages. Upon Anna's arrival to his apartment, Beethoven is equally shocked that a girl is to be his copyist but changes his mind after she, a composer herself, transposes a certain section in a different key, since she thinks (correctly) that is what he would eventually do.
The first half of the movie follows the obvious pattern of Beethoven questioning and accosting Anna, Anna proving herself, and Beethoven checking his ego. Since there isn't much variation within such a scenario, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson throw in two extraneous characters as compensation. The first is Karl (Joe Anderson in a forced, awkward performance), Beethoven's infamous nephew, and the second is Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode), an architect and Anna's sweetheart. Both characters ultimately exist solely for forced conflict—Karl to borrow and steal money from his uncle and cry foul to having music forced upon him, and Martin to try to deter Anna away from the maestro. Both characters are so dispensable, in fact, that when the screenplay is done with them, they are neither seen nor heard from or about again. The Bauer character, at least, shows Anna's true dedication to her art and brings up the debate of art vs. commerce in a scene involving a bridge he designs. The first clunky section is divided neatly by Beethoven conducting (through Anna, in a turn surely to cause a mild uproar in the music history community) The Ninth Symphony for the first time.
That sequence stands as the movie's most inspired. As Anna stands just below the stage, Beethoven follows her timing to conduct his most famous piece. Holland's framing is beautiful here—as both conductors' hands flow to the time to frame the other's face—reinforcing the connection between the central characters. As the music builds to its choral crescendo, Holland's camera begins a frenzied, jerking movement to go along with Beethoven's own intensity. Holland films almost 15 minutes of nonstop music from The Ninth, a gutsy move but one that certainly reminds us why, in spite of historical speculations, Beethoven remains an important figure. Beethoven's late period, full of almost modernist pieces, becomes important, showing an influence that could be felt centuries later. For the movie, the performance of The Ninth marks the turning point for Anna and Beethoven's relationship as they become colleagues. They begin to discuss music and the impact it can have. For Beethoven, it's his act of transcribing the creation of a higher power, and there's another great scene in which he relates the progression of a hymn in figurative terms. We see the man sitting, watching a lake, as fully orchestrated music plays in the background to show what he hears in his head.
Ed Harris and Diane Kruger have a tangible connection throughout the movie and especially in the later scenes that helps elevate their characters' discussions. Harris particularly captures the essence of Beethoven, although Kruger admirably holds her own as the fictional muse/protégé. While Copying Beethoven eventually finds its way, the movie is unfortunately too bogged down by its script's extended rough start to fully recover.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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