Category: biopics / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 92 of 100
It’s said that Beethoven died during a storm. Accordingly, Bernard Rose’s ‘Immortal Beloved’ starts with a rumble of thunder. The maestro struggles to rise from his death bed; reaches his hand almost imploringly towards the camera; the immediately recognisable opening motif of the Fifth Symphony fills the soundtrack; he slumps back, dead.
Yes, it’s that kind of biopic.
Bernard Rose had established himself with the brilliantly creepy ‘Paperhouse’ and the superlative urban horror ‘Candyman’, two of the genre’s best examples from the latter half of the 80s. (We’ll gloss over ‘Chicago Joe and the Showgirl’, the oddity he directed in between them.) ‘Immortal Beloved’ seemed like a strange follow-up to ‘Candyman’. Rose’s subsequent film – a static adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, sunk by the absolute dearth of chemistry between stars Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean – suggested that he was trying to re-invent himself as a “respectable” filmmaker. Subsequent projects ‘Ivansxtc’ and ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ have remained in the Russian literary adaptations camp (drawing, respectively, from source material by Dostoyevsky and – again – Tolstoy).
Rose seems to have a genuine and responsive passion for high art, and there’s no doubt that he manages to communicate its continued relevance to contemporary times (‘Ivansxtc’ cannily updates ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ to Hollywood). With ‘Immortal Beloved’, he makes a profound and sometimes successful attempt to fuse the passionate intensity of Beethoven’s music with the emotional traumas of the composer’s life at the time the various pieces were composed. Thus a truly gutsy performance of the Kreutzer Sonata (yup, Tolstoy took the title of his novella from a Beethoven composition) accompanies a rain-lashed sequence in which a carriage is stuck in mud preventing Beethoven from keeping a romantic assignation. And the marriage of music and imagery that Rose pulls off during the climactic performance of the Ninth Symphony as Beethoven experiences a flashback to a pivotal moment in his childhood is utterly inspired and worthy of comparison to Powell and Pressburger at their finest.
It’s a shame, then, with so much to commend it (the music, mostly conducted by Sir Georg Solti, is generally full-blooded and played with sturm und drang immediacy) – and with one of the great Gary Oldman performances in the lead role – that ‘Immortal Beloved’ is so badly flawed. Mostly, it’s the kind of stuff that bedevils most biopics: the cliché of the opening scene (the Fifth is one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven, but the way it’s used here is just fucking awful); the episodic structure; the thuddingly unsubtle exposition; Rose’s determinism to ram in a few bars of every famous Beethoven composition to the point that the film sometimes seems like a full-length music video for a Greatest Hits album.
But the biggest flaw is the one that truly sinks it. Rather than simply tell the story of Beethoven’s life, Rose opts to use a ‘Citizen Kane’ style structure, with every episode presented as a flashback. Thus Beethoven becomes the subject of the film rather than its protagonist. The central character, probing Beethoven’s papers and interviewing those who knew him, is his secretary Anton Schindler (Jeroen Krabbé). Schindler discovers an unsent letter by Beethoven address to his “immortal beloved” and tries to identify who the mystery woman is.
Anton Schindler was the first person to write a biography of Beethoven. It has largely been disproved as hagiography, not least in Schindler’s attempts to pass himself off as a close friend and confidant of Beethoven. The truth is that Beethoven had fired Schindler sometime earlier. Worse, Schindler was able to gain access to Beethoven’s papers very shortly after his death and is said to have destroyed certain documents which would have contradicted his version of things.
The effect is to deploy the best available talent (Oldman is magnificent and Krabbé much better than the hamfisted role he’s saddled with) in telling the story of arguably the most important classical composer and base the whole thing on the least reliable material.