Back in the mid-1990s British director Bernard Rose attempted to do for Beethoven what Amadeus did for Mozart. Yet whereas Milos Forman’s 1984 Mozart movie was almost universally feted, scooping up a slew of Oscars and millions at the box office, a decade later Rose’s Immortal Beloved failed to make a similar splash, slinking away empty handed into relative obscurity. And whereas Amadeus has been issued umpteen times on home video in umpteen different versions, only now is Immortal Beloved receiving a vanilla (extras-free) DVD release.
Truth be told, Rose’s Beethoven biopic is something of a Europudding, a stodgy concoction of clashing accents and performance styles from a multinational cast headed by a surprisingly cast Gary Oldman as Ludwig van B. This is a shame as Rose’s hook for the film – a Citizen Kane-type mystery involving the posthumous search for the composer’s so-called ‘immortal beloved – is fascinating.
The identity of Beethoven’s ‘Unsterbliche Geliebte’, or ‘Immortal Beloved’, the unknown woman to whom he addressed a cryptic love letter found among his effects after his death, has fascinated scholars for the better part of two centuries. Cannily, Rose took this puzzle and structured his movie as a quest by Beethoven’s secretary Anton Schindler (played by Jeroen Krabbé) to uncover the beloved’s identity.
As Schindler criss-crosses Europe, interviewing potential candidates, including Valeria Golino’s flirty Italian aristo Countess Julia Guicciardi (dedicatee of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata) and Isabella Rossellini’s soulful Hungarian countess Anna Marie Erdody, a series of flashbacks illustrate key crises and triumphs in Beethoven’s life.
Rose’s ultimate solution to the mystery is intriguing, if far-fetched, but his plodding script fails to bring Beethoven the man alive. As played by Oldman, he comes across as boorish and ill tempered – the archetype of the tortured genius whose bad behaviour is somehow justified by his (and it usually is his) genius.
For all the movie’s faults, however, Rose does show now and then that he can create an inspired marriage of image and music, as when the Kreutzer Sonata plays over shots of the composer’s rain-lashed carriage stuck in the mud as he strives to reach an assignation with his mystery lover.
Best of all, however, is the sequence in which the first performance of the 9th Symphony