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Movie review: 'Copying Beethoven'

Bruce Newman
San Jose Mercury News

At the convent where the titular steno in "Copying Beethoven" goes to escape the tortures of her day job, the Mother Superior makes not so vague allusions to the treatment she received as a young girl at the hands of the court composer Salieri. Coming about as close to a sexual leer as you would want a shriveled nun in full habit to get, she recalls being taken to Salieri, then offers suggestively, "He was ... French."

Salieri has been slandered in much better movies than this one, of course. His supposed treacheries toward Mozart in "Amadeus" won eight Oscars, including best picture, in 1985. But even in that meisterslagger slapdown, Salieri was never called French. Possibly because he was Italian. And that is but one of the many factual liberties taken by "Copying Beethoven," a movie that gains nothing by reminding its longhair music-loving audience of "Amadeus."

After taking on the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock six years ago, Ed Harris continues his march through the great men of art, playing Ludwig van Beethoven as a grumpy eccentric with a hearing trumpet. It doesn't seem to matter so much that he's American. At least he's not ... French.

When the young music student Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) presents herself at the Vienna apartment of Beethoven's cancerous keeper, Herr Schlemmer (Ralph Riach), as the maestro's new copyist - the person who turns a composer's scrawls into musical language - she is told what the filmmakers already know: that a woman would never have been allowed to occupy such a position in the early 19th century.

This is the prelude to a feminist fantasy that you can either embrace - as director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa") seems to have done with an unbecoming schoolgirl gushiness - or repeatedly be pulled out of the story by its falseness.

This needn't have been a fatal flaw, of course. "Shakespeare In Love" charmed audiences with a totally bogus Bard. But the only person Beethoven loves in this movie is his thieving varmint of a nephew, Karl (Joe Anderson); what the maestro feels for Anna is gratitude. After all, a good stenographer is hard to find, especially when you are translating the celestial humming of the almighty. "You are God's secretary," Beethoven tells her.

At their first meeting, despite being warned by Schlemmer that Beethoven is "the Beast," she suggests perkily that he has gotten his arrangement of notes wrong for a key passage of the Ninth Symphony. He mocks her impudence, but you can see that crusty old Ludwig is about two centuries ahead of his time as an admirer of spunky women. This comes in handy as he and the 23-year-old Anna are transformed by writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson into the Tracy and Hepburn of classical composition.

"I'm a very difficult person, Anna Holtz," says the maestro, who insists upon calling her by her full name, "but I take comfort in the fact that God made me that way."

And he's not kidding. As Beethoven has grown deafer, it seems the only voice he can hear anymore is God's, and the movie would like us to believe that they are having quite a lively conversation. Beethoven tells a friend that the Ninth Symphony, which was the last he ever wrote, is his farewell to music as he has known it. Though falling apart physically, he's about to take it up a notch musically, leaving antiquated notions such as movements and keys to hacks like the Italian Rossini.

Most of the other conversations in the movie are less divine, and usually feel less like natural speech than opportunities for the writers to let fly great thudding chunks of exposition about Beethoven's deafness, or the dimming of his - you should pardon the expression - rock star status since he began taking his directions from God, rather than the archduke. As Anna's boyfriend (Matthew Goode) huffily informs her, nobody listens to longhair music anymore. Technology, engineering: "This is the new music," he says.

The movie's best sequence is preceded by its worst line. As the maestro mounts the podium to conduct his Ninth Symphony for the first time in public, he actually says to himself (or possibly to his good friend God), "Now music changes forever!"

But the symphony itself is thrilling, and Harris shamelessly milks the moment with every theatrical grimace and gesture in the conductor's handbook. To hear those hundred Teutonic voices erupt into the "Ode to Joy" is, in fact, to listen to the transfiguring voice of God. Whether you believe that the deity was in heaven, or in a rat-infested apartment in Vienna, the only time his spirit permeates "Copying Beethoven" is when the music soars.

___

COPYING BEETHOVEN

2 stars

Rated: PG-13 (some sexual elements, crude humor)

Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Ralph Riach, Joe Anderson

Director: Agnieszka Holland

Writers: Stephen J. Rivele, Christopher Wilkinson

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

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