Ludwig van Beethoven's sundry biographers, wherever they're sitting, may feel like throwing their hands over their eyes upon being subjected to the crass speculations in Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved. But they won't cover their ears. Musical fidelity has always been more vital to composer biopics than historical accuracy, and Britisher Rose, a fugitive from the music-video wars, isn't about to change that now. Not with all he's got going for him.
Just for a start, there are excerpts of the Fifth, Seventh and Ninth symphonies, assorted concerti and the Missa Solemnis, among other masterpieces--performed with gorgeous intensity by Sir Georg Solti and the London Symphony Orchestra. (Denver moviegoers should be pleased: The Esquire Theatre boasts a brand-new, $25,000 Sony Dynamic Digital Sound system.) Rose also has the services of the versatile, classically trained Gary Oldman, who's proven himself equally adept at portraying Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula and the hitman in The Professional.
In purely melodramatic terms, Oldman's Beethoven probably won't win any awards for originality. He's the same kind of mercurial, misunderstood giant who's inhabited almost every musical biography since Al Jolson burst into song back in 1928. The mild-mannered folk at Disney conjured up a prickly but sanitized Beethoven in 1960's The Magnificent Rebel, but since then, all hell has broken loose. From the lunatic Liszt Ken Russell imagined in Lisztomania to the bratty Mozart we met in Amadeus, the composer set has been throwing movie tantrums for thirty years. Apparently, if you can't wreck a royal salon or contemplate suicide in at least three keys, you aren't worth a damn as a musician.
Here, Beethoven publicly curses his sister-in-law. He disses Metternich, the Austrian statesman. He crushes his beloved nephew, Karl (Marco Hofschneider), with music lessons. He orders siblings, loyal retainers and old friends around like curs. In the lives of the composers, it is always a dark and stormy night--at least while the cameras are rolling.
Luckily, Oldman gives us something beyond artistic temperament. Sporting a maniacal gaze, a grunge-prince hairdo and a Teutonic fury at odds with the deathless beauty of Beethoven's music, he seems to have captured the essence of the Romantic spirit. Passionate of mind and body, this is a Beethoven who has clearly thrown off all the old rationalist shackles and leaped headlong into the realms of exotic feeling. Right there on the soundtrack, Rose occasionally reproduces the awful hisses and rumblings rolling through the great man's skull once his deafness was complete. And when this Beethoven, sitting down to play, lays his head against the piano's soundboard, straining to feel the slightest vibration of his own genius, we begin to understand the depth of his loneliness, his rage, the central irony of his life.
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Oldman puts in a terrific performance full of fits, snits and inspirations, but director Rose has seen Citizen Kane once too often. Instead of accepting Beethoven as a storm of contradictions--or even as the overheated soul of Romanticism--he's intent on "solving" him. The device he uses is flimsy and artificial, as perhaps befits the man responsible for clunkers like Chicago Joe and the Showgirl and Candyman. Biographers strenuously disagree about Beethoven's gushing love letter ("My angel, my all, my other self...") found among his effects, acknowledging it as one of many mysteries in a complex life. But Rose inflates the letter into Rosebud--the secret at the heart of a life. As in Welles's great film, an investigator reconstructs Beethoven through a series of postmortem interviews, trying to determine the identity of his "Immortal Beloved." Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe), the composer's beleaguered bookkeeper, visits his past romantic conquests (Ludwing never met a countess he didn't like), friends and patrons, and in the end he comes up with an "answer"--although the biographers may disagree.
Rose has described his film as "a detective story about a love letter," and that's its shortcoming: He would have us believe that Beethoven's lifelong bad mood was based less on his deafness than on a missed assignation and that that was the central event of his life. The evidence to support such a claim is pretty thin; the life clearly was larger than this.
Meanwhile, passion on the set was such that Oldman and Isabella Rossellini, who portrays the fiery Hungarian countess Anna Marie Erdody, got engaged in the course of the filming in Prague. Perhaps that doesn't say much for the competing love interests, Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golina), who loved Beethoven well but played the piano badly, and Johanna Reiss (Johanna Ter Steege), the sister-in-law he tormented most of her life. But these performances, too, are full of romantic intensity and sheer swoon. Here and there, Rose and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky have also given the film the sumptuous look of a good Gericault or Delacroix, as if to visually underscore all those passions colliding up there on the screen.
In the end, Rose's Citizen Kane ploy feels tricky and derivative. It's a crutch that minimizes all the film's effects. But Immortal Beloved still boasts its share of glories--Oldman's verve, the grandeur of the music, a sure feel for the Romantic Age. That's more than enough to keep you riveted to the proceedings.