Immortal Beloved (United Kingdom/United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Those who prefer more than a token of historical fact in their biopics may be less-than-enamoured with Immortal Beloved, an erratic look at the life of Ludwig van Beethoven (played by Gary Oldman). Writer-director Bernard Rose is obviously more concerned with telling his version of the tale than in remaining anchored in reality. Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, "Don't let the facts stand in the way of a good story."

The question is: Is Immortal Beloved solid drama? Ignoring a silly and melodramatic conclusion, the probable answer is "yes." While never approaching the power of Amadeus, Immortal Beloved isn't a bad portrait of a temperamental genius and the three women who are the most likely candidates to be his secret, lost love ("I can only live completely with you or not at all..." Beethoven wrote).

The title refers to the addressee of a letter unearthed when the composer died in 1827. No one then, or now, knows who the "Immortal Beloved" is, but Bernard Rose decided it might be fun to take a guess or two. To that end, he has framed his film as a detective story with Beethoven confidante Anton Schindler (played by Jeroen Krabbe) trekking across Europe searching for clues. Along the way, he meets three women -- Johanna Reiss (Johanna Ter Steege), Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini), and Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golino) -- all of whom loved Ludwig, and one of whom is almost certainly the "Immortal Beloved." Most of the movie takes place in flashbacks -- and flashbacks within flashbacks -- as parcels of Beethoven's life are unwrapped for the cameras.

The movie is least satisfactory in the investigative sequences, combining a rather lackluster performance by Krabbe with an implausible scenario. On the other hand, perhaps it's the absence of Gary Oldman's flamboyant Beethoven that makes these sections of Immortal Beloved so flat. Often, especially when the story slows, it's the lead actor's performance that keeps this film from devolving into a turgid mess.

Aside from Oldman, the other really impressive element of Immortal Beloved is, as might be expected, the soundtrack. Taking the composer's best-known pieces and stringing them together makes for a heady experience, especially when director Rose marries the music with sufficiently impressive visual images (the use of the Ninth Symphony's "Ode to Joy" is a memorable moment of cinematic poetry).

Ultimately, however, the film's biggest failing is its characterization of Beethoven. Not only is he shown to be a selfish, crabby, arrogant womanizer (which is probably accurate), but we're rarely given more than a surface look into his personality. Because we're forced to watch him from an emotional distance, it's difficult to generate much sympathy. By extension, the identity of Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" is less a great mystery than a minor curiosity.

There are times when the script is unworthy of the subject matter, and occasions when Oldman's co-stars (especially Marco Hofschneider, who plays Beethoven's nephew Karl) seem ill-suited to their roles. Nevertheless, negatives aside, the plot holds the viewer's interest, even if it doesn't touch the heart. Immortal Beloved is the sort of flawed movie that still has enough assets to allow it to be enjoyed.

Immortal Beloved (United Kingdom/United States, 1994)

Director: Bernard Rose
Cast: Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbe, Johanna Ter Steege, Isabella Rossellini, Valeria Golino, Marco Hofschneider
Screenplay: Bernard Rose
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1995-01-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1