Copying Beethoven
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
With Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode, and Ralph Riach
Rated PG-13

In recent years, directors from the Continent have more often than not been ill-served by making Hollywood films. Poland’s Agnieszka Holland is one of the few whose American output (The Secret Garden, Washington Square) has arguably been in the same league with earlier European work (Angry Harvest, Europa Europa). So the first question that leaps to mind about Copying Beethoven, her new biopic of Ludwig van B., is: Has she lost her friggin’ mind?

Immortal Beloved, Bernard Rose’s 1994 take on the composer, was no model of historical veracity, but its liberties pale next to those in the script from the team of Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson (Nixon, Ali). They have invented the character of Anna Holtz — out of several real figures but mostly wholecloth — through whose eyes we see everything. In the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with such a narrative convenience, but, in this case, she’s not so much a device as she is a central character. The film is largely about her relationship with the composer, whose destiny she hugely affects. In short, this is more like Disney’s 1953 Ben and Me — How I Was Secretly a Central Part of a Great Man’s Life.

Copying Beethoven opens with Anna (Diane Kruger) rushing to where the composer (Ed Harris) lies dying. As she sits, she remembers the first time they met …

A brilliant composition student, she is sent by her professor in response to an urgent call from Beethoven’s publisher: It’s only days before the debut of the Ninth Symphony, and the maestro needs a copyist for the performing score. Of course, he thinks it ridiculous that a woman should be a copyist, let alone an aspiring composer, but she wins him over with the excellence of her work. “A woman composer is like a dog walking on its hind legs: It’s never done well, but you’re surprised to see it done at all,” says Louie, as his friends refer to him. (Given Holland’s propensity for titles like Europa Europa and Olivier, Olivier, she missed a good trick here: She could have called the film Louie, Louie.)

As Harris plays him, Beethoven is alternately a self-absorbed, even sadistic, sonofabitch and a man of great sensitivity and love (which sounds about right). He inspires Anna’s devotion, then treats her like dirt, then figures out ways to atone and bring her back. Their relationship is never overtly romantic or sexual, though there are some dicey moments.

It’s moderately offputting that, when we finally see the debut of the Ninth, the screen shows musicians playing what appear to be period instruments while the soundtrack swells with the recognizably different sound of a 20th-century orchestra; but an argument can be made that the older timbres would have been distracting, possibly disappointing, to modern audiences.

Harris — playing a role reminiscent of his work in Pollock — is as good as he can be, given the outrageous hokum level of the screenplay and the extremity of his makeup, which is so heavy I had to recheck the credit list 10 minutes in to make sure it was him. He looks less like himself than like Walter Huston reanimated.

But what sinks the film — almost to the point of risibility — is the combination of the preposterous script and the casting of Kruger. The actress, best known as Helen in Troy, is easy on the eyes, but she’s simply awful in this role. When we briefly see her at the piano early on, she is so awkward it’s as though this accomplished music student has never touched a keyboard before. And in the big climax — as she helps the deaf Beethoven conduct at the premiere by standing in a mysteriously appearing hole in the stage amid the orchestra, conducting at him so he can take his cues from her, emoting inanely, cleavage hanging out, waving her arms gracelessly — she looks as awkward and unnatural as … well … as a dog walking on its hind legs.

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