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Copying Beethoven

MGM // PG-13 // April 3, 2007
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted April 16, 2007 | E-mail the Author
"Copying Beethoven" has beautiful moments, yet it is beauty on loan from the title character himself. The film's best scene involves the premiere of the composer's masterpiece, his Ninth Symphony. We watch as the work is condensed into an intense fifteen-minute highlight reel; audiences are astounded by the music, and so are we. The sequence is brilliant, but is this because we are watching a good movie, or because we are listening to great music?

There are other involving moments as well, some of them not even connected to Beethoven's compositions. Consider the scene in which the young Anna, recently hired to copy the composer's scores in time for the big performance, comes across an old lady in the hallway. She hates her home and loathes the area, she laments, but she'd never move, not when she is the next door neighbor to Ludwig van Beethoven. She gets to hear all the symphonies before anyone else.

It's a lovely scene, one that gets to the heart of the movie: what wonder it must have been to experience these pieces anew, when they were still daring and original. "Copying Beethoven" is a glowing tribute to one of history's favorite composers, one that hopes to turn a familiar name into a symbol for rebellious artistic freedom - the rock n' roller of his day.

It is also a frustratingly gigantic mess of a movie, unfocused in its drama and ridiculous in its characterizations. Ed Harris, hidden underneath a fright wig and false nose, spends most of his time in the title role thrashing around wildly, assuming the louder, the better. This is the actor's hammiest performance to date, although the actor is not entirely to blame; the script calls for too many over-the-top flailings. Portraying the final years in Beethoven's life, the film hopes to be the new "Amadeus" by once again presenting a classical master as a crude, pompous jackass - they were geniuses in spite of their behavior, not because of it. (Indeed, "Copying Beethoven" is so inspired by Peter Shaffer's play and the Milos Foreman movie that followed it that it eventually winds up stealing an entire segment: Beethoven dictates his final work to Anna, just as Mozart did to Salieri.) Here, Beethoven moons visitors, yuks it up with the drunkards, complains about everything. With his primitive hearing aids and constant whining, he's Beethoven the Coot.

The hyper nature of Harris' Beethoven - "Louie" to his friends! - is balanced by Anna's unyielding blandness. Diane Kruger's performance is flat, which fits: here is a character so blank and uninspired that we never come to care about anything she does with her life away from her boss. She is given a love interest in the form of a drab architecture student (Matthew Goode), yet even when Beethoven steps between them, belittling the student's artless designs, the scenes come off less as important moments of character and more like limp excuses for Harris to run around shouting and breaking things.

Anna is an invention of the screenwriters, who aim not for accuracy but for speculative fiction. What if Beethoven's greatest work was inspired by a young woman? The problem is that the question never goes anywhere. When we first meet Anna, she is a promising, yet struggling, composer. She then reveals herself to possibly be a musical genius on par with Beethoven himself - she changes the key from minor to major at one point within the symphony, an alteration that improves the composition. Yet when we hear one of her own pieces, it is derided by Beethoven for being too simple, too stupid. Anna is introduced to us as a potential rival for Beethoven's brilliance, yet by the end of the film she is merely a very faithful employee.

Other subplots are left dangling in the breeze, most notably one involving Beethoven's son, Karl (Joe Anderson), who steals from his father to pay off his many debts. Meanwhile, Beethoven pushes his son into a life of music that the son does not want. This is an entire angle to the composer's life that is mentioned and then ignored - a couple of shots of Karl crying at the beauty of the Ninth Symphony, and that's the last we see of him.

Ah, but we come back to that Ninth. Despite some contrivances (Beethoven, unable to hear well enough to conduct, hides Anna behind the orchestra so she can count time for him), it's a marvel of a scene. We get close to Beethoven's inner fire, realizing that here, within the music, is where he truly lives. The audience's stunned reactions match our own, as the music is a work of unmatched beauty. Director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa," "The Secret Garden") lets the music lead the images. For a few minutes, "Copying Beethoven" is a great movie.

But it is only for a few minutes. The rest of the film cannot live up to such majesty, and it stumbles once more into an overblown piece of biopic fantasy.


Video & Audio

Ultimately, the two best things about "Copying Beethoven" are its look and sound, both of which sparkle here. The rich textures of the 19th century set design, including many scenes lit by candlelight, look fantastic in this anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer, which expertly handles the film's deep autumn hues.

And oh, to hear the Ninth Symphony in Dolby 5.1 is a pure treat; the rest of the scenes play quite well also, even the dialogue-heavy bits. A decent Spanish dub is presented in Dolby stereo; optional English and Spanish subtitles are also offered.


The audio commentary with Holland and Harris is informative, but it's often tough to get around Holland's thick accent.

A set of deleted scenes (presented in non-anamorphic widescreen) offer little help to the story. All come with optional commentary from Holland.

Finally, "Copying Beethoven: Orchestrating the Film" (9:55) is your typical behind-the-scenes feature, with cast and crew praising each other and talking about how great Beethoven is.

Final Thoughts

Rent It
for that key Ninth Symphony sequence, but be prepared to fast forward through much of the rest.
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