Copying Beethoven, 104 mins,
rated PG, opening in cinemas on 19 April 2007.
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This review appeared in the April
2007 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)
Copying Beethoven is a
fictional film about Ludwig van Beethoven in the days leading up to the
debut performance of his magnificent Ninth Symphony, in 1824. Like
Beethoven himself, the film has its flaws, but it also has moments of
exquisite beauty and brilliance.
Let’s deal with the good things first. There’s Ed Harris’ performance
as Beethoven. Ed Harris? Sure, he was brilliant directing himself as
Jackson Pollock in Pollock
(2000), and he almost stole the show in The Hours (Daldry, 2002). He’s
powerful and emotional, struggling mightily against wig, false nose and
ear trumpet, and wrestling with a sometimes clunky script. But when he
conducts the Ninth, he makes you believe. It’s a great performance
precisely because the role is such a stretch for Harris. He threw
himself into the role with his typical intensity, learning to write
music in Beethoven’s hand, and to conduct a symphony orchestra.
Another positive is, of course, the music, which we hear throughout the
film. And there’s some very intelligent discussion about individual
pieces, the development of Beethoven’s musical ideas, and the role he
played in the transition from the Classical era to the Romantic. The
climax of the film is the performance of part of the Ninth Symphony,
conducted by Ed Harris as Beethoven and played on screen by the
Kecskemet Symphony Orchestra with the Chorus of Kecskemet, Hungary.
(What we actually hear is the 1996 Decca recording of Bernard Haitink
conducting Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.) This
10-minute sequence is reason alone to see Copying Beethoven. The
Symphony’s end is one of the most emotional musical moments I’ve seen
Director Agnieszka Holland is a visual master, and Copying Beethoven is
a feast for the eyes. Set in Vienna but shot on location in Budapest
and other towns in Hungary, the film looks authentic, and the settings
suitably moody and shabby. I loved the way most of the costumes are
dirty, frayed, and old, rather than sumptuous and gorgeous, and that
the wigs were often askew
But there are some problems with the film. The first is the way the
writers have manipulated the facts, creating the fictional character of
Anna Holtz, a music student who becomes Beethoven’s copyist. Anna is
based on two male Austrian students who actually worked for Beethoven,
and one female composer living in France – Lorenc Ferenz, who was
apparently influenced by Beethoven’s music.
The writers (Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) say that
creating this character enables us to enter the silent solitude of the
latter years of Beethoven’s life. But Anna, played by the beautiful, if
rather blank, Diane Kruger (Helen in Troy,
Petersen, 2004) becomes the centre of the story. We see the troubles
Anna has being accepted as a serious musical scholar, and composing
something that Beethoven, her master, will accept without ridicule. We
see her discomfort as Beethoven behaves like a slob and a grouch. We
watch as she tries to make her way in a man’s world. All this takes the
focus away from the character we are really interested in – Beethoven.
The other major problem is in some of the writing. Sometimes it becomes
overblown: for example, Beethoven explains his approach this way:
‘Silence is the key. The silence in between the notes. When that
silence envelopes, then your soul can sing.’
Ahem! And sometimes it jars: for example, when Anna complains,
perhaps anachronistically, of Beethoven: ‘He mooned me’. Just as
well she’s fictional. If she were real, there’d have been a scandal.
Given that the film is called Copying
Beethoven, I’d have liked to have learned more about the process
of copying music. For example, how do they deal with the orchestration?
How many copies have to be produced for the debut of a particular
symphony, and how long does it take? What about mistakes? At the end of
the film these things remain a mystery – as does, on the whole,
Beethoven himself. Still, there’s always the music. The glorious music.
There are more film reviews by Michele Asprey at