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Friday, Dec. 1, 2006

Life as a bittersweet symphony

The delight of "Copying Beethoven" is in the details. There's the furious scratching sounds of a quill pen on music sheets; the hand-written notes that were duplicated from the original, written by Ludwig von himself; the fragile shafts of light coming into his dark, dank apartment, which is cluttered with debris; the tall figure of Beethoven crossing a cobblestoned square in Vienna.

Copying Beethoven Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Ed Harris and Diane Kreuger in "Copying Beethoven" (C) 2006 FILM & ENTERTAINMENT VIP MEDIENFONDS 2 GMBH & CO. KG

Director: Agnieszka Holland
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 9, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The film only loses its atmosphere during the moments it ditches the ambience and attempts to channel "Amadeus" (the genius composer Beethoven tormenting his wannabes against a resplendent and romantic Viennese backdrop), which for many remains the all-time-greatest film about classical music.

Confined to its own, compact realm, though, "Copying Beethoven" yields a lot of joy, not least for some truly inspiring performances and an orchestration of the Ninth Symphony, conducted by Ed Harris in the role of Beethoven.

Rendered unrecognizable by a thick mane of iron-gray hair and an impressively Teutonic nose, Harris wears the mantle of Beethoven's persona in a way that gives new meaning to the title -- in fact, why not change it to "BEING Beethoven?" The artistic cantankerousness, 19th-century oafishness (in one scene Beethoven washes himself in his apartment kitchen, with the water seeping straight through the floorboards and into the soup tureen of a family sitting down to dinner downstairs), the mannerisms of an embittered and deaf man: Harris has them DOWN.

To his credit, he also avoids resembling Gary Oldman (who had the same role in "Immortal Beloved") like the plague; his Beethoven is markedly less brooding and volumes more boisterous, clunking restlessly around his apartment and the streets of Vienna. He yells and flails and splutters, masking his insecurities behind a transparent veneer of abusive joviality, delivered always in double exclamation points.

"Copying Beethoven" is a fictional tale of the last years in the composer's life when his hearing was impaired, his public was no longer much interested and his few friends kept their distance. In his day, Beethoven had been the toast of Vienna, now the phrase "has-been" seems plastered to his forehead. He has one more trick up his sleeve though -- his Ninth Symphony, if only he could get a reliable copyist to transfer his tormented scribblings onto clean music sheets. This turns out to be the fictional Anna Holtz (Diane Kreuger), a 23-year-old music student who turns up at Beethoven's door one afternoon (in real life Beethoven had two copyists, both men well into middle-age). Eager to become a composer herself, she had taken the post hoping that some of Beethoven's genius may rub off on her. Director Agnieszka Holland ("Total Eclipse," "Washington Square") gives a very modern slant to both these characters: Beethoven comes off as a declining rock star and Anna as a smart, career-oriented beauty.

Beethoven works without stopping, often with a sheet of metal wrapped around his head ("this way I can hear the vibrations!") while rats scurry at his feet ("they keep the cats away. I hate cats, they don't make any noise!"). His only visitor is a doted-upon nephew, Carl (Joe Anderson), whose sole purpose is trying to wheedle cash out of his now-impoverished uncle.

Into this mess alights the benevolent Anna, as if on angel wings. At first, Beethoven is floored that his new copyist should be a woman, and then incensed that she understands his music better than any veteran male musician. Together they work on his drafts and, thanks to her, the Ninth is played to thunderous applause. Briefly, it looks as if Beethoven has recaptured his charismatic rock-star status, but by this time he realizes that he can't work without Anna by his side. For all their age difference, he acts like a kid seeking his mother.

"Copying Beethoven" leaves a lot of things unsaid, like Beethoven's famed Oedipus complex and how this ultimately soured his relationship with women. Or how he had hated his alcoholic father for ruining his mother's life, and how familial troubles had constantly burdened him. That such topics, or indeed any of Beethoven's past, never comes up in the dialogue ultimately works for the film -- uncluttered by psychoanalytic depictions it concentrates on Beethoven's character, his relationship with Anna, and his music.

The film belongs to Harris, who plays the piano and violin, mastered the technique necessary to conduct a full orchestra, and churns out musical notes as if he had been born clutching a quill pen. Kreuger, though adept and attractive, is no match for Harris, and her character seems a little diluted and flimsy, even during a scene when she rails against God, asking why He gave Beethoven all the talent and none to her. Salieri did the same in "Amadeus," but the prettily manicured Anna has none of Salieri's urgent creepiness. In the end, she merely seems to reflect Beethoven's strongest longing -- not for fame or success or love, but his need to be truly and deeply understood.

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