Copying Beethoven (United States/Germany, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I have nothing against historical fiction: books or movies using real characters in situations that didn't happen. However, one would hope in such cases that the authors would have a story worth telling. That's not the case with Copying Beethoven, in which writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson and director Agnieszka Holland take a chapter from Beethoven's last stage of life and re-imagine it as a standard-order troubled genius motion picture. Copying Beethoven is no more interesting or accurate than the "other" recent Beethoven fiction, Immortal Beloved, and stands far below the Mozart fiction, Amadeus. However, although dramatically impotent, the movie features a great soundtrack and a 15-minute scene of surprising force.

It's 1824 in Vienna and Beethoven (Ed Harris) is rushing to complete his Ninth Symphony, which is due to be performed in four days' time. To do this, he needs a copyist. She is Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), a top conservatory student who admires the composer. Initially, Beethoven scoffs at the possibility that a woman could help him, but events change his mind. After getting off to a rocky start, the two develop a solid working relationship that blossoms on the night when the symphony premieres. After that, however, things hit a rough patch when Anna asks Beethoven's opinion of her own compositions and he ridicules them.

Thankfully, Copying Beethoven avoids the obvious path of developing the relationship between Beethoven and Anna into something romantic. There's never a hint of sexual tension; these two are platonic friends, defying Billy Crystal's When Harry Met Sally assertion. However, the drama is pre-fabricated, with nearly every scene proceeding in a pre-ordained fashion and every "character" moment feeling scripted. The dialogue is stilted, with an odd mixture of anachronistic language and old-fashioned rhythms.

To an extent, Copying Beethoven is redeemed by the 15-minute excerpt from the Ninth Symphony that forms the movie's crown jewel and centerpiece. For a short period equaling about 1/7 of the movie's running time, everything falls into place: effective camerawork, superior set design and costumes, and a top-notch rendition of the music. It's a classical music lover's paradise. Too bad it couldn't last longer; eventually, we come crashing back to the reality of underwritten melodrama.

Playing his second manic artist (after previously essaying Jason Pollock in Pollock), Ed Harris brings intensity to the role, but not much else. It's a high spirited portrayal, but not a great one. Harris is excellent when Beethoven goes over the top, but not as effective during the quiet moments. Diane Kruger underplays the part of Anna; it's unclear whether she never "gets" the character or whether there's not enough of substance to "get," but Anna is neither compelling nor sympathetic, and at least part of the blame has to be accorded to the actress.

Director Agniezka Holland forged a reputation with a series of powerful and provocative films in the late 1980s and early 1990s (including Europa Europa and Olivier Olivier). Lately, however, as she has moved more toward the mainstream, her films have lacked passion, and that's one of the problems with Copying Beethoven. This is one of those middle-of-the-road art pictures that will impress some music lovers and attract a small audience, but won't really excite anyone. Copying Beethoven does not do for its title composer what Amadeus did for Mozart, and that's a shame.

Copying Beethoven (United States/Germany, 2006)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1