Ed Harris as Beethoven? A strange casting choice, especially if you recall how Gary Oldman embodied the maestro in Immortal Beloved. But as Jackson Pollock, Harris did bring to life a tormented artist. Give the man a large metal ear trumpet, fright wig, and piano, and maybe it’s not such crazy casting after all.
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. Here, our guide through Ludwig’s world is Anna (Diane Kruger, previously the Helen of Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy), whom we first see rushing to Beethoven’s deathbed, the world outside her carriage a series of quick cuts perfectly timed to the symphony in her head.
Anna, a student at the Vienna music conservatory, works as a copyist for Beethoven, who turns out to be like every obnoxious self-absorbed creative type you’ve ever met: an egomaniac.
Director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) doesn’t drape the story in finery. This Vienna is rainy, dirty, rat-infested, and full of piss pots. Beethoven throws his possessions all about the place, firing his maids and relishing in 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. This is the film’s climax, and a spectacular one even if you’re not much of a classical-music fan. Beethoven was, after all, the rock star of his time.
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 high, screenwriters Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, best known for the two ponderous biopics Ali and Nixon, deliver a film awkwardly composed.