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Copying Beethoven

Less Than the Sum of Its Musical and Dramatic Parts

Set in 1824 Vienna, Austria, Agnieszka Holland’s (The Secret Garden, Europa Europa) latest film, Copying Beethoven, opens with Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), a talented music student, after she agrees to become Ludwig van Beethoven’s (Ed Harris) new assistant. Beethoven’s manager, Wenzel Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), is too ill to play caretaker to the mercurial Beethoven, so he sends for the conservatory’s most promising composition student. Although Schlemmer initially objects to Anna due to her gender and his prejudices, he agrees to allow her to become Beethoven’s assistant, warning her of Beethoven’s temper and unconventional behavior.

Anna’s first meeting with Beethoven goes as badly as expected. He’s rude, crude, and obnoxious, incredulous that the university sent a woman to become his copyist and assistant, but, with the first performance of the Ninth Symphony only four days away, Beethoven has little choice but to put aside his preconceptions and prejudices about women. Anna impresses Beethoven when she “corrects” one of his musical compositions and her honesty in dealing with Beethoven’s profligate nephew, Karl (Joe Anderson). As the days tick down to the Ninth Symphony’s first performance, Anna’s relationship with Beethoven changes from assistant to confidante. Beethoven’s continued presence in Anna’s life, however, threatens her relationship with Martin (Matthew Goode), a well-to-do engineer interested in Anna romantically.

Dramatically, Copying Beethoven falters just as Beethoven enjoys the last triumph of his career, the performance of the Ninth Symphony. Starting Copying Beethoven only four days before the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is part of a larger problem co-writers Stephen J. Rivele Christopher Wilkinson never manage to overcome. Post-performance, the film never regains the momentum present in the earlier scenes. The audience is then left with the inevitable slide toward dissolution and despair with brief glimmers of personal triumph for the fading Beethoven as his music takes a more experimental, introspective approach.

Interestingly, Copying Beethoven also explores the familiar conflict between the pursuit of artistic expression and romantic love, one presumably in keeping with the constraints women faced in 19th century Europe. To reach your highest artistic potential, romantic love has to be brushed aside. Art has to be pursued for art’s sake with singular devotion or so the fictionalized Beethoven would have us believe. Copying Beethoven, however, implies that Beethoven's motives aren't completely pure, as the need for adoration fuels his desire for artistic expression. His need for intimacy, emotional if not physical, also contradicts his proselytizing of art and music as the pinnacle of human experience and the connection between creativity and divinity.

Performance wise, Ed Harris throws himself wholeheartedly into his role, but ultimately slips into caricature and camp. Given Harris’ intensity and physicality, Holland had an actor with the ability and experience to breathe life to a romantic, musical icon, but doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s only in Beethoven’s earthier rants, in his tortured relationship with his nephew, or raptly conducting the Ninth Symphony to an enthralled audience that we see glimpses of Beethoven as a human being and not a semi-mythical, divine figure. Unfortunately, Diane Kruger gives a bland, unengaging performance as Anna. Some of the fault is due to an underwritten, credibility-stretching role, but Kruger bears some responsibility for the end result. Kruger often looks lost, relegated to repetitive, furrowed brow reaction shots as Beethoven slips into rant mode. And the less said about the perfunctory romantic subplot involving Anna's suitor, the better.

Visually, Agnieszka Holland chooses a muted, blue-toned color palette that's become de rigueur in period films. Holland, however, takes that aesthetic too far. The early scenes are so underlit that it's almost impossible to follow character movement or facial expressions. Later in the film, Holland brightens up the interiors to indicate Anna's positive influence on Beethoven, but even then she seems opposed to the establishing shots necessary to give moviegoers a coherent sense of space. With an incompletely realized storyline, an underwritten characters, and murky visuals, the most that can be said for Copying Beethoven is that moviegoers will feel compelled to give Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony another listen as soon as they get home (assuming, of course, that they own a recent audio recording).

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars