Copying Beethoven (2006)

While Copying Beethoven is a technically well-made, good-looking film, there doesn't seem to be any true soul present.

Copying Beethoven

Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode, George Mendel, Joe Anderson, Phyllida Law, Ralph Riach
Distributor: MGM
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: MGM
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-03

Copying Beethoven is a quite unnecessary, though thoroughly well-meaning, little historical footnote (albeit with considerable fictional interpretation – Beethoven never had a women copyist) of a film. Ed Harris toes the line between parody and camp to play one of history's greatest (some might argue the greatest, period.) composers in the turbulent, brilliant last year of his life. Though the film never pretends to be an authoritative biography there are so many factual errors throughout that it tends to distract from the dramatic story.

Set in 1824, during the final fruitful composition period in which his Ninth Symphony was being written, the film suffers from a wildly uneven tone (is this a light, daffy comedy or a staunch drama?). We are presented with the maestro going deaf -- which allows Harris to ham it up, dinner theater-style, with inaccurate (for that period of his life) props like an antique hearing aid device (and here he only looks silly, using it). According to the filmmakers, Beethoven can hear people speak if they are loud, but in real life he had gone completely deaf seven years prior to writing the piece. Partially for this reason, Beethoven needs someone to help copy his work, which is where young ingénue Anna Holtz (a capable Diane Kruger) breezes in, all gusto and tenacity.

Women, it seems, were not really allowed to perform such terribly imperative tasks at the time; it was all left up to the men. Ever the pioneer, Anna's persistence and her actual skill win her a place in Beethoven's inner circle but even though she is copying the master's notes down (and even correcting some of his mistakes -- the hubris!), there are still scenes of the gorgeous young woman cleaning his filthy, unkempt house. It seems that a woman of that time had to be part housekeeper, part confidante, part object of desire and capable enough to transcribe some of the most important classical music works ever written. A tall order, but Anna is determined to make it work. This is, after all, the job opportunity of a lifetime.

At first, it's jarring to see Harris playing the character of "Ludwig von Beethoven". Shown first on his deathbed in the opening scene, the actor (who is one of the most dependable, and consistent men working today), commits fully. The fright wig is secured safely in place, as well as the distinctive prosthetic nose, and the commanding voice and loopy accent are well employed. It is a transformation that immediately invokes some of Hollywood's greatest impersonations: from the Lon Chaney make-up monster extravaganzas on the '30s to the much buzzed-about Nicole Kidman take on Virginia Woolf (complete with her own fake schnauz) in 2002's The Hours. Harris remains consistently game throughout.

It's a tradition of disappearing behind the layers of latex that either works (like Charlize Theron in her award winning turn as Aileen Wournos in Monster), or doesn't (like, well, here). Movie stars such Harris have a clear love for altering their appearances and they love to tackle real life characters. After all, this is the sort of actor-y muscle flexing camouflage (combined with the biography aspect) that is designed to win Oscars. If you are playing a troubled artist in a biography film, chances are you are going to get some attention. Harris knows best: his last Oscar nomination came from playing another equally bright, equally troubled artist, Jackson Pollock.

Agnieska Holland (director of the stellar Europa, Europa) has consistently lowered her own artistic bar with each of her new cinematic offerings: one of her latest films A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, was shown on Lifetime, and did little for her reputation as a European art house stalwart. While Copying Beethoven is a technically well-made, good-looking film, there doesn't seem to be any true soul present.

For a story that relies so heavily on the concepts of gaining a certain sense spirituality and transformation through music (Beethoven, after all, said that music was the language of God), there is a severe lack of inspiration provided visually. Holland seems to have nothing at the core of her film, it's ultimately hollow. There is no passion. What is meant to be a triumphant "Ode to Joy" is unfortunately flat and riddled with historical inaccuracies. One could forgive such fiddling with the truth if it weren't for the self-seriousness in which the characters and proceedings are trapped in.

As it stands, Copying Beethoven never lets viewers in on the fact that it is a complete work of fiction masquerading as a biopic. There is very little "Beethoven" in this film about Beethoven. For a more well-rounded dramatic take on the composer's life, a revisiting of Gary Oldman's performance of the great man, Immortal Beloved, might be in order for hardcore fans.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.