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(photo credit: Myriad Pictures, Inc.)
COPYING BEETHOVEN - ** 1â„2
Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Written by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele. 104 minutes. In English, with Hebrew titles.
With Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode, Joe Anderson, Ralph Riach
If you can accept Ed Harris with a towering wig and paunch as Beethoven, and if you love classical music, you may enjoy Agnieszka Holland's Copying Beethoven. The film, which focuses on the composer as he finishes composing his Ninth Symphony and conducts its first performance, is an uneasy mix of cliche's from previous composer-inspired biopics and genuine, heartfelt feeling for his music.
Composing is generally a solitary activity, so the filmmakers have filled out the story with a young, timid religious woman, Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), a gifted and ambitious musician who helps Beethoven copy his score and serves as a sounding board for all his observations on music and life.
Like Amadeus, Copying Beethoven builds on the conceit that a man with what he considers a God-given gift may also be rude and crude in his everyday life. This seems to be an endlessly fascinating theme for moviemakers, perhaps because it is so common for Hollywood types to be vulgar and thuggish in their business dealings and treatment of underlings. But Holland, an eclectic and often brilliant director - she has made such films as Europa, Europa, Olivier, Olivier and Washington Square - has tried to go beyond this boorish-genius schtick. The results are uneven, but Holland clearly has great enthusiasm for the composer's music, as well as a desire to present it so that it seems fresh in a world where the Fifth Symphony has provided background music for endless commercials and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is a popular cell phone ringtone.
When the film concentrates on Beethoven's music and approach to his work rather than his personal habits (is it really so interesting that he talks dirty, drinks a lot and doesn't keep his apartment clean?), the film soars, because Holland, I suspect, is far more interested in the music than the man.
Purists may not like the fact that Anna Holtz is a fictional construct, an amalgam of several figures in Beethoven's real life not closely based on any particular one. She'll present a far smaller problem for less literal-minded audience members, though the fact that she isn't a very interesting character will be an issue for everyone. The deficiencies of this underwritten character, unfortunately, are also compounded by Kruger's appealing but bland performance. Best known for playing Helen in Troy, the actress tries as hard as she can, but the role doesn't really make sense. She's there to be shocked by Beethoven and to be instructed by him, but has no real function otherwise. With her blond hair in a messy bun and glasses meant to give this model-perfect actress the look of a serious Viennese music student, Kruger still comes across as generic, a straightwoman to absorb all of Beethoven's best lines.
Harris has made something of a career playing mad geniuses lately - he was Jackson Pollock in Pollock and the poet dying of AIDS in The Hours - and he delivers his lines with gusto. Most of his speeches focus on his belief that God speaks through him despite his profane behavior (sample line: "We musicians are the children of God, put into the world to sing His praises"), and he is tormented in ways unfamiliar to less-talented mortals ("My head is constantly full of sound," he says, "and the only relief I have is to write it down"). Viewers' tolerance for Beethoven's many pronouncements will vary, though there must be people who will enjoy them, since so many movie scripts feature this kind of writing.
What unquestionably works well here is the music itself. Holland painstakingly crafts the film's centerpiece, a concert in which Beethoven conducts the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, to let audiences experience what it must have been like to hear the piece the first time. She is remarkably successful in creating suspense and drama in this section.
After the performance, Beethoven goes on to work on his late string quartets, in which he broke away from traditional form and structure. The quartets proved a controversial development at the time, and Holland succeeds in explaining the reasons to her modern audience. It's a very sophisticated music lesson for a mainstream film, and while the word "lesson" might convey the impression that the film is pedantic and boring, it's actually anything but.
When Holland, a cerebral yet cinematic director, lets the music be her guide, the movie is impressive. As for the rest, well, I'm sure Harris will be remembered in the long run better for his performance as the scary psycho in A History of Violence than as the great man with the big hair who moons the earnest blonde fraulein here.