||A good deal of Beethoven’s music is heard in Agnieszka Holland’s film about the composer’s last days. There are repeated excerpts from string quartets (including the Grosse Fuge) and piano sonatas to accompany the action. But the most substantial chunks are from the Ninth Symphony, the premiere of which the composer is preparing as “Copying Beethoven” begins and with which it culminates. We’re shown excerpts from the first and second movements (apparently the slow third was thought uncinematic!), and considerable swaths of the famous choral finale.
But the questionable use of that music is characteristic of the problems that beset the movie as a whole. The quartets and sonatas are employed in a fairly ordinary way, to complement visuals of similar “emotional” thrust. That’s unimaginative but not too irritating. But when it comes to the Ninth, since it wouldn’t be feasible to play the entire twenty-plus minute last movement, we’re treated to a succession of bits and pieces in which the transitions will be, for anyone who knows the piece, jarring.
The same sensation that things aren’t quite right can be said to apply to the entire film. Casting about for a means of conveying the flamboyant eccentricity of Beethoven’s personality and the frustration of his deafness along with a portrayal of his late-life musical radicalism in the face of public doubt and social ostracism, scripters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson have fastened on the notion of providing the composer with a fictional female copyist called Anna Holtz (played by Diane Kruger) sent to him by the music conservatory where she studies to assist in finishing the score of the Ninth Symphony. She becomes the conduit through which we see Beethoven in all his greatness, childishness and sadness. What gradually develops between them isn’t romance but grudging truth and respect, most clearly dramatized when the composer depends upon Anna to guide him as, hobbled by his inability to hear the players, he leads the orchestra through the Ninth.
One needs some hook, of course, to try to penetrate Beethoven’s gruff exterior and get at the reality beneath the surface biography, and the one adopted by the writers here is no worse than that employed in the last movie about him, “Immortal Beloved” (1994), which was structured around an admirer’s effort to identify the woman he so addressed in a letter discovered after his death. But it’s not especially compelling, either, and at times it’s almost positively silly. The relationship between Ludwig and Anna never becomes more than a writer’s device, and when it reaches a climax in the performance of the Ninth Symphony, it borders on the absurd--the way in which the young woman is supposed to have guided the maestro’s conducting by sitting in the middle of the orchestra and giving him signs is literally ridiculous.
Concentrating on their relationship creates two other difficulties. One is that since it requires him to be seen in fragments, it virtually guarantees that Beethoven will be a rather limited, one-note character, especially as he’s played by Harris, who doesn’t bring much more to him than a generalized smoldering quality. (Harris is actually better than one might have expected, but that’s not saying much.) The other is that it means a whole back story has to be created for the fictitious Holtz. As portrayed by the attractive but curiously recessive Kruger, she’s a sort of pioneer--a female conservatory student--housed in a convent with her tradition-bound aunt (a nun), but carrying on a secret relationship with a handsome young man, Martin Bauer (Matthew Goode), a designer working on plans for a bridge, who’s presented as an uninspired technician in contrast to the natural genius that is Beethoven. The entire construct of the character is obvious and frankly rather dull.
To be fair, from a purely visual standpoint “Copying Beethoven” is handsome--Holland certainly knows how to compose scenes, and the production design (by Caroline Amies), costumes (by Jany Temime) and cinematography (by Ashley Rowe) combine to create an impressive ambience (even though Harris doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in it). And the music is well performed throughout, including Maggie Rodford’s linking score.
But the sad fact is that despite the attention lavished on the film by its makers, it turns out to be a sadly conventional treatment of the career of a man who defied convention himself by taking music in a new direction. It joins most earlier films about composers in failing to do justice to its subject. (“Amadeus,” an exception, didn’t deal so much with Mozart as with a caricature that happened to have the same name, fashioned as a symbol for dramatic effect.) Beethoven still awaits a cinematic craftsman as imaginative and driven as he was.