- Nobody does insanity and agonizing death quite like Ed Harris.
Ed Harris as Beethoven? The man who would be John Glenn is hardly the most instinctive choice to play the legendary composer, especially if you recall Gary Oldman's performance in Immortal Beloved. Oldman embodied the maestro. Still, as Jackson Pollock in Pollock, Harris did bring to life a tormented, alcoholic artist who broke new aesthetic boundaries. Give the man a large metal ear trumpet, fright wig, and piano, and maybe it's not such crazy casting after all. Does the portrayal stray dangerously close to parody at times? Yes. But Ludwig van Beethoven is, after all, larger than life in all of our minds.
Perhaps too large. Like Immortal Beloved, Copying Beethoven refrains from making the great composer its actual protagonist, viewing him instead through the eyes of someone close to him. It's a similar technique to the one used for Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland -- create a composite character with a conventional character arc who can act as the straight man to our marquee actor. The marquee actor is then free to ham it up in the Big Role -- something that Harris does well -- without the responsibility of holding together a narrative or having to be sympathetic.
Our guide through Ludwig's world is Anna (Diane Kruger, previously the Helen of Wolfgang Peterson's Troy -- and here, not especially noteworthy), whom we first see rushing to Beethoven's deathbed, apparently viewing the world outside her carriage as a series of quick cuts that are perfectly timed to the symphony playing in her head. This opening scene is rather pointless, since the story that follows neither leads directly to Beethoven's passing nor returns to that point in time, but it does allow Harris to play a dramatic death scene, something actors seem to enjoy almost as much as sobbing or going insane -- both of which, of course, are on the menu here. Harris has fun with all of it.
Anna is a student at the Vienna music conservatory, the best one the school has -- although, being a woman, she can't expect any future as a composer. But she does get recommended as a copyist for a certain superstar composer, who is so unpleasant, his own publisher declares that "Death will be a vacation" from working with the guy. Beethoven turns out to be like every obnoxious, self-absorbed creative type you've ever met -- amped up to ferocious levels because (a) he's famous and can get away with it, and (b) he really is that good, though the public is starting to tire of his work. Anna is hired when she makes a change in the piece she's copying, instinctively (and correctly) feeling that Beethoven wrote down the wrong note.
Unlike the directors of period pics Immortal Beloved and Amadeus, Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) doesn't drape the story in finery. This Vienna is rainy, dirty, rat-infested, and full of piss-pots, and Beethoven throws his possessions all about the place, firing his maids (he suspects they're stealing) and relishing rodents because he says they scare away the cats. This filth makes for a grand contrast when Beethoven finally debuts the Ninth Symphony in an opulent concert hall, insisting on conducting, even though he can't hear the orchestra. Anna uses hand signals to keep him on pace. This is the film's climax, and a spectacular one -- even if you're not much of a classical music fan. Holland draws power from the scene and shows Beethoven as the rock star he was. Then she puts you inside his head, dropping the sound so that you experience only the bass vibrations of an applauding audience.
Unfortunately, this climax occurs in the middle of the film, and nothing much happens afterward -- a major structural misstep. Instead of sending us out on the concert's powerful high, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, best known for two ponderous biopics, Ali and Nixon, deliver a film awkwardly composed.