Grade: B+Immortal Beloved (1994)

Director: Bernard Rose

Stars: Gary Oldman, Isabella Rossellini, Jeroen Krabbé

Release Company: Columbia Pictures

MPAA Rating: R

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Bernard Rose: Immortal Beloved


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"The Last Master of resounding song, the tuneful heir of Bach and Handel, Mozart & Haydn's immortal fame is now no more. The harp is hushed. He was an artist - and who shall arise to stand beside him? He was an artist - thus he was, thus he died, and thus he will live to the end of time."
Franz Grillparzer
One great scene can make even an average movie redeemable, but any movie with two great scenes compels cineastes to savor its artistry and to analyze why it remains indelibly imprinted in the psyche. Such a movie is writer/director Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved, with a pair of musically enhanced scenes that have haunted me ever since seeing the film a decade ago in theaters. Now thankfully released in a special edition DVD, I can always return to these remarkably poignant moments that still brings forth internal smiles and mystical tears of joy. One occurs as Beethoven places his stone deaf ear intimately close to his piano while playing "Moonlight Sonata," and the other takes place during his transcendental "Ode to Joy" where a flashback gradually unifies young Ludwig with the cosmos. If the movie had nothing else of note, I'd still recommend people to check it out for these two unforgettable scenes. You never know what may spark an interest into the classical music universe, and Rose captures Beethoven's passionate spirit incredibly in those moments.

Fortunately, the film works well enough otherwise to warrant more than utilizing only the scene selection menu on the recently released special edition. Inspired by Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Rose developed his biopic about Ludwig van Beethoven after a great deal of research. Never finding a soul mate to marry, Beethoven's hidden letter addressed to his "Immortal Beloved" has long been an object of speculation among music scholars. Rose uses this conceit to craft a plausible explanation through Anton Felix Schindler's (Jeroen Krabbé as Beethoven's friend and personal secretary) attempts to settle his master's affairs after his death. Three candidate women reveal aspects of Beethoven's life and character through a standard series of flashbacks.

Although lacking the dynamic conflict inherent with rival Amadeus composers Mozart and Salieri and fairly predictable in outcome, Rose's screenplay creates enough dramatic tension to carry the film. The story is actually much more based on established facts than Peter Shaffer's entertaining and provocative Amadeus. A truly modern composer so independent that he rejected the idea of patronage, Beethoven was immensely popular during much of his career despite his irascible personality. Well known scenarios are included, like Beethoven's initial admiration and subsequent aberrance of Napoleon is noted silently as he scratches the French emperor's name from his "Eroica Symphony." But lesser known stories are also revealed—his public humiliation at a concert when his deafness becomes known, his legal battles with his brother's wife to adopt his nephew, his devotion and indulgence to his nephew, etc. Rose occasionally changes the details for dramatic purposes, but he credibly piques interest without resorting to a tedious sequential rendering of Beethoven's life (a lá Attenborough's Gandhi)

As difficult as it is to demonstrate artistic genius and creativity, films have had much more success with musical composers than other artists. Much of this is due to the medium itself since sound can be incorporated directly into the tapestry of the film itself. Rose uses Beethoven's works wonderfully remembering the hypnotic power that his protagonist refers to: "It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer" Besides the two supreme musical moments, dozens of other scenes illustrate Beethoven's genius, often getting inside the great composer's head. Especially haunting are the scenes that use sound to simulate his deafness—it's not a total silence, but a chronic dull droning noise that shuts him out from the beautiful music that the world of hearing people are experiencing. It makes it easier for us to empathize with Beethoven and his tempestuous outbursts. How cruel it seems that Fate would decree that he can never hear his greatest compositions.

A competent ensemble cast, that includes a sympathetic Isabella Rossellini as Anna Marie Erdody also elevates the movie above mundane biopics. The real coup is the perfect casting of consummate chameleon actor Gary Oldman as Beethoven. Melting into the role naturally, Oldman transforms himself into the legendary German composer—from his accurate concert piano fingering, to his excruciatingly painful deaf scenes, to his drunken rages. Oldman even ages far better than most actors donning the appropriate makeup, as his entire body subtly changes with advancing age and infirmity. He plays most of the film acting 20 years older than his actual age, but without calling attention to his real persona, Oldman is a true acting talent. But that is to be expected from the professional changeling, who's played other historical figures as varied as Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious.

Although fans of Ken Russell's The Music Lovers would disagree, Immortal Beloved must rank as the second best film ever made about a composer. Gary Oldman is always worth watching—though you may need to check the credits to identify him in most of his movies since he plays across the wide expanse of humanity, changing entirely with each role. Here he reigns supreme as the definitive personification of Beethoven, supported with some fine writing and cinematography that visually treats much of its content like a silent movie and contains two great scenes designed to send music aficionados into ecstasy. Getting under the skin of a musical genius like Beethoven is no mean feat (even in brief moments), and Rose's passion for his subject comes through. As a whole Amadeus continues to reign supreme in the musical biopic genre, but this film deserves far more attention than it received upon its initial release.
 


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