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Immortal Beloved

Sony Pictures // R // August 21, 2007
List Price: $28.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 29, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Sony's release slate for August 21st includes two Blu-ray titles to answer those who've criticized the studio for focusing so squarely on recent Hollywood blockbusters and sci-fi/action fare on the fledgling high definition format. The first is a much-appreciated day-and-date release of the Academy Award winning German film The Lives of Others, and the other is 1994's Immortal Beloved.

Writer/director Bernard Rose's somewhat fictionalized account about the life and loves of Ludwig van Beethoven (played here by Gary Oldman) uses a framing device similar to that of Citizen Kane, opening with the famed composer's death. The executor of his estate, Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé), stumbles upon a letter willing all of Beethoven's worldly possessions to his 'immortal beloved'. Hellbent on carrying out the last wishes of the unappreciated genius he so admired, Schindler visits with the many loves of Beethoven's life in the hopes of uncovering the identity of this unnamed woman. It's through these conversations and the flashbacks that accompany them that we're offered a glimpse into Beethoven's past: the manic personality and the passion that fueled the compositions of some of the greatest and most enduring music every written as well as the physical and mental impairments that prevented him from embracing that which he loved the most.

I've read criticisms of Immortal Beloved that decry the fact that we're rarely offered any true insight into Beethoven...that the movie never pierces any further than the surface veneer of the man. I don't see that as a shortcoming at all. Throughout the film, Beethoven is seen almost exclusively through the eyes of others, and it's made all too clear that he remained elusive even to those who knew him best. Gary Oldman is incredible as Beethoven, shaping him as a man of combustible rage, profoud passion, undeniable genius, and a condescendingly dismissive ego. Immortal Beloved doesn't romanticize Beethoven or whitewash his many shortcomings, and Oldman's gift for making deeply flawed and almost unlikeable characters endlessly engaging is put to exceptional use here. The supporting cast is remarkably strong as well, including turns by Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino, and Johanna ter Steege as the more prominent women throughout Beethoven's adult life as well as Marco Hofschneider as his tortured nephew.

Some of the actors quip in the disc's extras that Bernard Rose didn't direct the movie; he conducted it. Rose deflects the compliment, but it's not undeserved. Beethoven's legendary compositions aren't incorporated into the movie so much as it is the other way around, with the film emerging as an inextricable extension of the music. There's not a scene in Immortal Beloved that would function if one piece of music had been exchanged for another, culminating in a sensational performance of "Ode to Joy" that's accompanied by the most gorgeous and memorable shot in an already visually sumptuous film.

Immortal Beloved isn't entirely historically accurate -- the woman in Beethoven's letter has never been definitively identified, and the assertions made throughout Rose's film has sparked great debate among scholars -- but those sorts of attacks are almost incidental. Immortal Beloved has little interest in serving as a rote biography. It amounts to so much more than that, combining some of the most magnificent music ever composed, gorgeous European locations untouched by the ravages of time, and a set of sensational performances, including what has to approach a career high for the already immeasurably talented Gary Oldman. Enthralling, emotionally wrenching, and stunningly photographed, Immortal Beloved is an exceptional choice for Sony to have made to show that Blu-ray has more to offer than megaton explosions and computer-generated effects for the PS3 generation. Those who haven't seen Immortal Beloved should find it a film well worth discovering on this next-generation format, thanks not only to the strengths of the film itself but the exceptional presentation of the scope visuals and its lossless multichannel soundtrack.

Video: Immortal Beloved arrives on Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 on this dual-layer disc. None the worse for Sony's choice of MPEG-2 encoding, Immortal Beloved is one of the more instantly striking catalog titles of its vintage that I've seen on either high-definition format.

Though there is some slight variance in crispness and clarity, the image is generally remarkably sharp and well-defined. The throngs of mourners in the film's opening moments are each clear and distinct, for instance, and such fine details as the texture of parchment and the individual hairs in some of the mens' mutton chops are equally impressive. The film's vibrant palette also leaps off the screen, particularly the lush greens of its foliage as well as spatters of blood, the colorful 19th century garb, and the lavish and vividly saturated production design. The very fine gradations from one shade to the next, particularly the interplay of light and shadow on the actors' faces, are similarly eye-catching. The source material is in immaculate shape, revealing no wear or speckling of note, and the healthy bitrate of the MPEG-2 encoding presents no trouble for the faint trace of film grain. Simply phenomenal.

Audio: A film that places such an emphasis on its music cries out for lossless audio, and Sony has accordingly included a pair of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtracks for this Blu-ray release of Immortal Beloved. The immersive sound design comes through spectacularly, particularly the richness and clarity of the orchestral instrumentation as well as the full-bodied sound of the piano. Immortal Beloved is bolstered by a deep and substantial low-end, not limited to just the renditions of Beethoven's music but the snarl of thunder, the clatter of hooves, and the devastating barrages of cannon fire as Napoleon mounts his siege on Vienna.

As wonderfully as the music is rendered throughout Immortal Beloved, its presentation of Beethoven's deafness is similarly spectacular. At times, dialogue and all background noise around the man are either reduced to a whisper or fade away entirely, drowned out by the percussive beating of Beethoven's heart. There's no strain or clipping evident even in the most loudly shouted lines of dialogue, and the slight hiss in the background is easily ignored. Immortal Beloved's lossless audio sounds tremendous and is an equal match for the thoroughly impressive visuals.

Immorted Beloved also boasts a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track in French along with an extensive selection of subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic.

One of the more intriguing decisions made for Immortal Beloved is the adjustable placement of English subtitles, fielding one of the concerns of DVD Talk reviewer Joshua Zyber and other owners of constant image height front projection setups. Even though the placement of subtitles in the letterboxing of scope films only negatively impacts a tiny percentage of Sony's userbase, these are also some of their highest-end users, and it's appreciated to see that they're being properly accomodated. Not all of the subtitle streams offer this option, but it's a much-welcomed start. The special features on this disc also offer optional subtitles.

Extras: Sony has included all of the extras from the standard definition release of Immortal Beloved on this Blu-ray disc, and the audio commentary by writer/director Bernard Rose in particular is a rewarding listen. Rose is an engaging speaker and delights in using the film as a springboard to related topics of discussion. He rarely lingers on the technical minutiae, preferring instead to note how many of Immortal Beloved's more impressive visuals aren't artifical constructions, ranting about how the pop music of the past century is "the scourge of humanity", and explaining his own fascination with Beethoven and the films that inspired him. Of most interest is how Rose expands on the reality of this world, elaborating extensively on some of these characters and situations as well as fleshing out stories about how suicide by gunshot was in vogue at the time and how Beethoven was composing music to be played on pianos that had not yet been invented. As enthralling as so much of the commentary is early on, the pace slows down dramatically after its first half hour or so, with lengthy gaps in the discussion becoming increasingly common after that. Many viewers may quickly lose interest in the commentary after that point, but the early stretches of the track are a nearly essential listen.

The documentary "Beloved Beethoven" devotes much of its half-hour runtime to the actors' performances, delving in depth into how each of the main roles were cast as well as how they approached and prepared for this material. Bernard Rose shares the documentary with most of the film's key actors and actresses (Isabella Rossellini being the notable exception), and his direction -- particularly the way he handles his cast and meticulously timed the action to Beethoven's music -- is discussed at length as well. Other highlights include detailed notes about the European locations used throughout the film, the attention paid to reproducing the 19th century wardrobe, and ensuring that Gary Oldman would be convincing behind the keys as an accomplished pianist. There's surprisingly little overlap with Rose's audio commentary, and those more fascinated with the artistry of the film rather than the nuts and bolts of production should find it well worth watching.

A vintage six and a half minute promotional featurette rounds out the film's extras. Also included are high definition trailers for Sony's upcoming Blu-ray releases of Vacancy and Tekkonkinkreet.

Conclusion: Despite the controversy swirling around the film's fictionalized depiction of Beethoven, Immortal Beloved is a compelling selection from Sony to show off the breadth of their back catalog, boasting a tremendous lead performance by Gary Oldman and a first-rate technical presentation. The extras aren't plentiful but are of a sufficiently high quality to contribute some welcomed added value to the disc. Highly Recommended.
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