3 stars (out of four)
Agnieszka Holland's "Copying Beethoven"--a bio-drama on the great composer and musical hero Ludwig van Beethoven--is a movie with some flaws but also with moments of beauty and intensity most other films can't match. A fanciful depiction of Beethoven's last painful years of increasing isolation, public rejection and encroaching deafness, Holland's film hits its peak midway with a truly devastating scene, a fictionalized vision of one of the most inspiring episodes in all music history.
That scene shows us the May 7, 1824, Vienna debut performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, attended by Beethoven, and what took place there during and after the last movement and the great soaring "Ode to Joy" chorus. If you know the story--I wept when I first heard it--you can foretell what marvelous drama it embodies. If you don't know it, the 10-minute-long re-creation here, beautifully played by Ed Harris as Beethoven and by Diane Kruger as the fictitious 23-year-old copyist Anna Holtz, may well make you weep tears of joy too. (The symphony music is dubbed from the superb 1996 Decca recording by Bernard Haitink and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.)
This searing sequence helps wash away the dramatic-cinematic sins of the film. And there are sins. The writers, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson (who wrote Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and Michael Mann's "Ali") obviously transgress the truth in the film--making the non-existent Anna a struggling young composer, standing up against the sexism of Beethoven and his old publisher Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), enduring the trashing of her fiance, Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode), as well as the composer's rudeness, tantrums and his self-destructive devotion to his wastrel nephew Karl (Joe Anderson).
But you can forgive Holland's movie its faults because of its devotion to Beethoven's music and to that heroic image of him. Harris, who made an extraordinary Jackson Pollock in his own bio-drama "Pollock," plays Beethoven with wild locks and a near cartoonish flushed face. But he gives close to a great performance anyway, moving us, as Philip Seymour Hoffman did in "Capote," precisely because the role is such a physical-emotional stretch.
Similarly, Kruger bravely takes on a part that seems a schmaltzy trap. And Holland, the Polish-born writer-director ("Europa, Europa") whose most notable English-language failure was another great-artist bio, "Total Eclipse," on French poet Arthur Rimbaud mostly overcomes the romantic fabrications too. Like Abel Gance in his 1936 "Un Grand Amour de Beethoven" or Ken Russell in his gaudy films on Delius, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and other composers, Holland has a full-blooded style and unabashed emotion that carry the day. "Copying Beethoven," at its best, is a sort of grand cinema opera of the composer's life and music.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland; written by Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson; photographed by Ashley Rowe; edited by Alex Mackie; production designed by Caroline Amies; non-original music by Ludwig van Beethoven; produced by Sidney Kimmel, Rivele, Michael Taylor, Wilkinson. An MGM release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual elements).
Ludwig van Beethoven - Ed Harris
Anna Holtz - Diane Kruger
Martin Bauer - Matthew Goode
Wenzel Schlemmer - Ralph Riach
Karl van Beethoven - Joe Anderson
Mother Canisius - Phyllida LawCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times