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.