It is a classic mad maestro look, half-rabid, half-rhapsodic, and seeing it on Gary Oldman’s face unmasks “Immortal Beloved” even before you read the breathless prose on the rest of the poster: “The genius behind the music. The madness behind the man. The untold love story of Ludwig van Beethoven.” Oh, brother.
Yes, this is another one of Hollywood’s silly symphonies, an unintentionally amusing bit of piffle that allows mortals a privileged glimpse into the private life of a legendary composer, letting us watch in awe as the great man indulges in passionate romantic liaisons and says things like, “I am writing a new symphony. It will cause a scandal.”
And great he was, worthy of the somber funeral oration delivered in 1827 by Beethoven factotum Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe): “He was an artist and who will stand beside him? The thorns of his life wounded him deeply, but he held to his art. He carried the music in his heart even when he could no longer hear it.” And so on.
Devoted as Schindler was to the maestro, he is as shocked as the next person when a hidden document reveals that Beethoven left everything to the great love of his life, the never identified “Immortal Beloved.” “The maestro was nursing a secret passion,” Schindler all but gasps. “Who could this be?”
Armed with a list of likely suspects, Schindler ignores the composer’s gruff surviving brother who wants the big bucks for himself, and sets off on a grand tour of former girlfriends, determined to solve this musical mystery because, and you can quote him, “There can be no peace without the truth.”
The first stop is a sprawling hotel in Carlsbad where Beethoven and the I.B. were scheduled to have a rendezvous years before. But the lady mysteriously stormed out mere seconds before the maestro’s arrival, causing the bereaved man to smash furniture and heave armchairs out the window like a rampaging rock star.
Next is Vienna and a visit to the Countess Julia Guicciardi (Valeria Golino), an early Ludwig groupie who locks the door and insists, “What I shall tell you will never leave this room.” Though Beethoven had the personality of a common oaf, she reveals, he first became her piano teacher and then won her heart. But her snooty father, upset at the maestro’s increasing deafness and his humble birth, nixed the match.
Deafness also forged a bond between the composer and another woman in the I.B. sweepstakes, the Countess Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini), encountered by Schindler in a roadside tavern knocking a few back with the hearty peasants of her Hungarian estate.
She met the composer at the first performance of one of his concertos when Beethoven’s hearing disorder, which made the world sound like a jet, was forever revving its engines, causing him to act strangely and provoking audience laughter. “His fire offended their small brains,” the countess grumbles, still upset at the tyranny of petty minds.
The last important woman in the composer’s life is his sister-in-law Johanna (Johanna Ter Steege), a no-nonsense, self-reliant type who got on Beethoven’s bad side by running off with his favorite brother.
Given how over the top he’s been recently, Oldman is actually restrained (for him) as the romantic composer who storms through life railing against the commonplace, but the role is conceived in such a formulaic way, it can’t arouse much interest.
“Immortal Beloved” does have a few things to look forward to, especially the snippets of the man’s splendid music, here played by soloists Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax and Yo Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti.
But though Bernard Rose’s interest in Beethoven is doubtlessly genuine, that has not stopped him from taking liberties with history and turning out an inane piece of work, the kind of movie where you can actually see the irate master scratching Napoleon’s name off what came to be known as the “Eroica” Symphony. Those wild and crazy composers, they really knew how to live.
* MPAA rating: R, scenes of violence and sexuality. Times guidelines: It includes nudity and a scene of rape, though not by the maestro.
Gary Oldman: Ludwig van Beethoven
Jeroen Krabbe: Anton Felix Schindler
Isabella Rossellini: Anna Marie Erdody
Johanna Ter Steege: Johanna Reiss
Marco Hofschneider: Karl van Beethoven
Valeria Golino: Julia Guicciardi
An Icon production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Bernard Rose. Producer Bruce Davey. Executive producer Stephen McEveety. Screenplay Bernard Rose. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editor Dan Rae. Costumes Maurizio Millenotti. Production design Jiri Hlupy. Supervising art director John Myhre. Art director Olga Rosenfelderova. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 553-8900.